THE LAST CUENTISTA
By Donna Barba Higuera
The world is ending. It’s 2061 and a solar flare has pushed Halley’s comet onto a collision course with Earth. Only a handpicked group of scientists, builders and politicians can escape the ticking time bomb of a planet, on luxury spacecrafts. Much to her relief — and deep survivor’s guilt — Petra Peña; her brother, Javier; and their two supersmart scientist parents are selected. They expect to be put into hypersleep for the 380-year journey, kept alive by multiple generations of caretakers, or “Monitors,” until they reach their new planet.
If you think sending a group of traumatized Monitors into space, isolating them and giving them great responsibility and great power over others’ lives might lead to an authoritarian regime, you’re right. When Petra wakes nearly 400 years later, she finds that the Monitors have become the “Collective,” a utopian (read: dystopian) society that has eradicated all difference and conflict. They’ve also eradicated the past, by erasing everyone’s memories. Well, almost everyone’s. Thanks to a malfunction, Petra’s remains intact.
“The Last Cuentista,” by Donna Barba Higuera (whose debut novel, “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance,” was a Pura Belpré honoree), certainly veers into the dark end of middle grade fiction, with brainwashing, “purging” (murder, though always off-page) and, yes, the destruction of our entire planet. But it doesn’t dwell in the darkness, preferring to give its readers healthy doses of hope, wonder and page-turning action.
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The premise is exciting. The world-building is simultaneously grounded and imaginative: A brief reference to “the great pandemic from back in the ’20s” anchors us in time; glimpses of water butterflies and alien chinchillas spark awe; descriptions of the Collective are specific enough to feel chillingly realistic. And like any dystopian novel worth its salt, this story has a lot to say about power, peace and the danger of a worldview — or dogma, a word the narrative helpfully introduces to young readers — that seeks to bury the past and decimate difference.
As engaging as the sci-fi elements are, though, the best thing about this book is what it has to say about storytelling. Petra isn’t just a 12-year-old girl unwillingly thrust into a space-cult dystopia; she’s also a storyteller. On Earth, Petra’s grandmother (lovingly called Lita, for abuelita) told her Mexican folk tales, and Petra aspired to one day herself weave cuentos (stories) as masterfully. But when she wakes to dire circumstances, Petra realizes she must find her cuentista voice sooner than expected.
Because the other kids on the ship have been brainwashed, the only way to reach them is through story. Stories show them an alternative, freer way of life than the one the Collective proposes. Stories give them the hope they need to be brave. And, most important, stories remind them of who they were — who they are.
In weaving her cuentos, Petra faces the challenge so many storytellers do: How can she capture the spirit and power of the tales she grew up with while adapting them to speak to a new world? Indeed, her life and the lives of her friends depend on the answer.
The brilliance of Higuera’s narrative is that it shows rather than tells us the power of story. As Petra shares her tales and they guide her shipmates out of darkness, readers will find corners of their own hearts illuminated as well. This book is gripping in its twists and turns, and moving in its themes — truly a beautiful cuento.