Kwame Mbalia has always felt an affinity for writing, whether it was short stories, poetry, or even “bad rap lyrics,” as he puts it. “Just writing of any kind was therapeutic to me.” However, it was only in the past few years that he grew serious about his craft, joining an online writers’ group where he could hone his skills. In the meantime, he graduated from Howard University with a degree in biology, and he currently works in the pharmaceutical industry, calibrating drug manufacturing equipment.
Though some might see a dichotomy between the roles of children’s book author and scientist, Mbalia says he enjoys it. “It allows me to switch which half of the brain I’m using, between the scientific stuff and the creative stuff.” For him, writing is a calling. “I just want to put stories out into the world.”
Stories such as Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky (Disney/Riordan), about a 12-year-old boy who, after being sent to live with his grandparents in Alabama, accidentally winds up in a magical realm where he encounters the gods and heroes of both African myth and African-American folklore. For Mbalia, landing the opportunity to write this adventure for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint was “a series of happy mishaps.” While working on a different, as-yet-unpublished book, which he describes as a West African steampunk, he caught the attention of fellow author Dhonielle Clayton, cofounder of the Cake Literary book packaging company.
In December 2017, Mbalia and Clayton learned that Rick Riordan Presents was looking for stories specifically focused on African-American culture and mythology. “We wanted to put together something quickly, for when publishing reopened in the new year,” Mbalia says. “So the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I hammered out three chapters and an outline and submitted it as soon as possible. And luckily, they liked it.”
To tell Tristan’s story, Mbalia drew from a personal space. “I lost my father about six months before I started writing this,” he says. “It was difficult for me, and really difficult for my eldest daughter at the time. And at the outset of the book, Tristan is dealing with loss and grief, so to write about Tristan overcoming this helped us to address our own feelings.” He’d also always wanted to incorporate African mythology and African-American folklore into his work, and so “this fell into my lap at an opportune time.”
As a father of three daughters, with a nine-to-five job, Mbalia sometimes struggles to balance the workload. On weekdays, he writes “after the kids go to bed, and before I go to sleep.” He tries to make up for it on weekends, and says that his biggest help was the implementation of a writing schedule. “It’s handy to work with a deadline, to divide up the number of days I have left, and plot it out on a chart so I can track my progress.”
Having children in the right age range does come in handy. “They’re my joke testers,” he says. “If I’m thinking of putting something funny in a book, I run it by them first. If they laugh or show interest, I know I have a hit and try to work it into the manuscript. If it lands flat, and they give you that look kids give you when you think you’re funny but you’re not, I go back to the drawing board.”
Though Mbalia didn’t originally intend to become a children’s book author, he possesses a passion for this category. Children’s literature draws readers of almost every age group. “It feels easier to digest, but it can still tackle complex subject matter,” he says. “You eliminate a lot of readership when you write just for adults. But everyone can appreciate these books. I can share them with my nine- and 11-year-old daughters. We’re at that perfect slice of life right now where we’re reading the same books and talking about them, and it’s just wonderful to be able to do that.”
Besides the opportunity to work with Rick Riordan, whom Mbalia calls one of his favorite authors, the publication process has yielded other pleasant surprises. “The best thing so far has been the fan art,” he says. “I love seeing different artistic representations of the characters, because that means lasting impressions were formed, and they’re sharing them with other people.”
Currently, Mbalia is hard at work on the next installment of Tristan Strong’s adventures. Having just turned in a draft to his editor, Stephanie Lurie, he’s waiting for revisions. While he waits, he finally has a chance to catch up on his favorite TV shows and books. “Pretty soon those revisions will come back, and it’ll be nose to the grindstone again,” he says. It won’t be long before Tristan returns to punch a hole in something else.