I recently finished the Newbery Medal title, Donna Barba Higuera’s The Last Cuentista. This medal is awarded to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. At some point, I suppose I will stop being surprised at how excellent award winners are, but today is not that day.
The book follows Petra Peña and her family as they prepare to leave Earth due to an impending, life-ending comet. Because her parents are renowned scientists, the Peña family is selected to travel 380 years away to colonize a planet called Sagan. Upon boarding the large space ship, Petra, her younger brother Javier, and her mom and dad are separated and placed into a comatose state that preserves their bodies during the long trip. While in this state, they will receive knowledge through a port; this knowledge will ensure they can sufficiently contribute to the Collective upon arrival on Sagan. Petra is very unsettled by it all. She misses her grandma Lita, the stories they would tell together, and her old life back home in New Mexico.
The procedure should cause her to forget her old life when she wakes up. But nearly four centuries later, nothing is the way it is supposed to be. She remembers every bit, and her family is nowhere to be found.
Petra attempts to conceal this from the ship’s leaders while seeking out her parents and younger brother and working to get the others in her cabin to remember their former lives. Stories are how Petra has always made sense of the world, and they become even more of a lifeline as she seeks to find a way out of this strange future and get back to her family.
The Last Cuentista is full of twists and turns. I found myself racing ahead to find out what would happen, as if by speed reading, I could head off any negative outcomes that might occur. As Petra sneaks around the ship, trying to collect clues about her family and find a way off the ship, she retells her grandmother’s cuentos to the others and accidentally captures an unintended audience in Voxy, a young boy born and raised on the ship. To avoid any differences in human appearance, all members of the Collective, including Voxy, look the same. All have translucent skin, purple lips, and bright red veins. People like Petra, who has brown skin, a vision problem, and freckles, no longer exist. Individuality and diversity are not prized in the Collective.
The ship’s frightening leaders, Nyla and Crick, sacrifice Petra and the other original humans to explore Sagan. As she navigates the planet’s jungle-like climate and looks for a way off the ship, she comes to heartbreaking realizations and encounters some very unexpected people.
I will be thinking about this story for a long time. Higuera has crafted an engaging, edge-of-your-seat, dystopian tale that also emphasizes the importance of stories as a form of connection to yourself and others. I recently re-read Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and I felt a lot of similarities between the two. Both are a little bit heavy with characters that are undeniably human. This would be an excellent read for fans of plot-driven dystopian tales, though The Last Cuentista is not nightmare-inducingly scary. Instead, it presents a terrifying reality where only a single story gets told, where we try so hard to get rid of the bad parts that we allow history to repeat itself. As Petra reflects at the novel’s end: “I know stories can’t always have happy endings. But if there are chances for us to do better, we have to say out loud the parts that hurt the most.”