culture, fairy tales, hispanic, science fiction

Middle Grade Must-Reads: The Last Cuentista

The Last Cuentista (Levine Quierdo)
Written by Donna Barba Higuera

For ages: 9-14
Halley’s Comet has become a threat to humanity, barreling towards Earth. Scientists have determined it will impact and destroy the planet. So adolescent Petra Peña’s family was chosen to join one of three space arks leaving to restart human civilization on the distant unpopulated world humans have named Sagan. During this journey, all the scientists and their families will be put into stasis, frozen as they are, and given vast quantities of knowledge over the centuries it will take to reach Sagan. Another group of people have been chosen to maintain the stasis pods and will teach this to their children and on and on until the grand day arrives. While it is heartbreaking to leave Earth behind, everyone has hopes for this new chance.

However, problems arise from the start. The pre-selected academic courses loaded into Petra’s pod aren’t right. It’s missing the mythology and folklore extracurricular she was looking forward to. Petra had an extremely close relationship with her grandmother, who taught the young girl to have a deep appreciation of the power of storytelling in Mexican culture. Through these larger-than-life characters, Petra discovered the means to keep going despite hardship. Petra wakes up thinking it’s time to begin populating Sagan but discovers something terrible has happened during her sleep. A cultish group known as The Collective has infiltrated the ship’s crew. It has erased the memories & identities of so many. Petra finds herself renamed Zeta-1 and has to hide her memories of the old world as she tries to figure out if she can reverse this horrible development.

The Last Cuentista won the 2021 Newberry Award, and deservedly so. There are few pieces of middle-grade literature I’ve read that elevates the form more than this novel. Thematically it’s touching on profoundly pressing issues of our time, from facing down a dying planet to the importance of holding onto our histories & stories no matter how much others seek to erase them. Angry mobs in some American states have made quite a bit of destructive headway in vilifying an honest survey of history and are now trying to turn librarians into Machiavellian villains for providing diverse & inclusive literature in their stacks. The Collective doesn’t seem so fantastic in the face of these genuine crises. 

Often, science fiction focuses on folding in meaningful, relevant themes while presenting alien landscapes and characters. The Last Cuentista has all of those but also incorporates traditional Mexican folklore. Petra will sit up with her fellow Zetas at night, once their monitors believe they are asleep, and share her stories with the hopes something in them will jog her comrades’ memories, restoring their identities. Eventually, one of the Collective even comes to love hearing her stories and finds sympathy with her cause. 

Regarding content, the book features a highly diverse cast of characters. The ideas here are overflowing with potential for thoughtful classroom discussion. For students, like all of us, home is an anchor against the trials of life, so to feature a character who must leave everything behind is exceptionally harrowing. Sadly, so many students feel apathy towards history and reading, which I don’t hold against them. Having worked in schools since 2006, I have seen how these subjects are often drained of their magic in favor of test preparation. 

Now is such a critical time for our kids to open their eyes to the importance of their history and cultures. The Last Cuentista posits that storytelling is as important as the sciences in building a society. STEM, while very important, has often been allowed to overshadow the arts. Through storytelling, we foster our imaginations, which in turn can lead to those questions and ideas that fuel science. The stories Petra heard from her grandmother provide her with a connection to a world she can never go back to, as well as help light her way into this scary, uncertain future.

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