2022 Newbery Award Winner Book Review:
The Last Cuentista
(Note: It is not the purpose of this review to draw conclusions for the reader but rather to focus on literary elements and topics of importance for the Christian audience.)
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera is the winner of the 2022 ALA Newbery Medal.1 In addition, the story also won the Pura Belpré Medal given to a writer who “portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”2 The author, Donna Barba Higuera, is known for her stories where “kids. . .find themselves in odd or scary situations,”3 and this story did just that. Falling into the dystopian science fiction genre, The Last Cuentista embodies the classic post-apocalyptic narrative.
Petra Peña, her brother, and her parents embark on a praying mantis-like spaceship in order to escape the destruction of the Earth by Halley’s Comet. Their course is charted for the planet Sagan which is believed to be the closest Goldilocks4 planet to allow and support human life. Petra and her family are placed in stasis to be awakened hundreds of years later once they arrive. However, when Petra finally awakens, she finds a ship and a people far different than promised.
Her family is nowhere to be found, and the humans manning the ship have been genetically modified so that their skin resembles that of a translucent shrimp. In an effort to eliminate the evils of humanity on Earth and foster a new utopian society, the shrimp-like humans (called the Collective) have not only made drastic changes to themselves but also to the original settlement plan. Instead of being the initial inhabitants of the new planet, the humans awakened from stasis are needed only to provide scientific expertise as well as serve as test subjects for the Collective. Once they prove useless, they are disposed of. The mindwipe technology used to remove the memories of those in stasis doesn’t seem to have worked on Petra, and she forms a plan to save herself and her companions. The unknown perils of the planet Sagan are worth the risk when she learns the lengths to which the Collective will to go to implement their utopian ideals.
The major theme throughout the book is the power of story. Petra loves her grandmother’s stories inspired by their Mexican heritage. When her grandmother, or Lita, tells a story she always adds something new and exciting, and she’s even been known to change the ending. Petra has always wanted to be a storyteller just like Lita. As Petra navigates the perils of her new world, she uses her memory of Lita’s stories and her own storytelling abilities to comfort, inspire, evaluate situations, remember her heritage and her past life, and convince others to join her. Without her stories and gift of storytelling, Petra would be lost to the uniformity of the Collective.
Petra’s Mexican heritage is sprinkled throughout the story with language, cultural references, allusions, and most prominently Mexican folklore and mythology. The author includes Spanish words and phrases throughout the book. Although the English translations aren’t readily available, much of the meaning can be gathered from the context. It didn’t seem to slow the pace of the story.
Petra’s character development is primarily one of self-discovery and coming of age, and the author balances believability delicately. Petra makes quite a few decisions that seem mature for a 12-year-old, but some suspension of disbelief is required for this genre, so it seems to work.
Though it’s not specifically stated that she is Catholic, Petra has basic religious knowledge concerning prayer, the rosary, and Jesus. However, Petra’s view of God is one of general confusion. She might believe in a god, but she once refers to him as her, and she’s unsure if “the whole Jesus thing works if we’re on a different planet…does it work here too?”5 It seems as though religion and spirituality are used most often as a good luck charm. She states at one point that she “learned from Lita to cross myself before doing anything dangerous”.6 Also, a few minced oaths are sprinkled throughout in both Spanish and English.
There are plenty of topics in the story that would merit discussion with a young reader such as alcohol, deception, religion/spirituality, loss, grief, ethical dilemmas, an LGBTQ family unit, a Biblical response to a tyrannical socialistic society, and Mexican mythology. Consistent with the genre, the story is dark overall. But there are beautiful moments of hope and family throughout, and the reader is not left feeling hopeless. Note: Due to the nature of the genre and it’s post-apocalyptic setting, there are a couple events that may overwhelm a highly sensitive reader. There is nothing graphic, but there are a few scary and heart-breaking moments for Petra.
As the last cuentista, Petra Peña preserves her Lita’s stories as well as crafting her own upon reaching the new planet Sagan. Stories that she hopes will be passed on to many generations after her; thus preserving a vital aspect of her humanity in the face of annihilation. The value of story is something few would debate regardless of worldview, and that emphasis in this book is true though told from a secular perspective. The value of story to a biblical worldview would be an excellent topic of discussion with young readers.
5 Donna Barba Higuera. The Last Cuentista (Montclair: Levine Querido, 2021), 155.
6 Higuera, 155.