Sonderbooks Book Review of

The Last Cuentista

by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista

by Donna Barba Higuera

Review posted June 10, 2022.
Levine Querido, 2021. 320 pages.
Review written April 6, 2022, from my own copy, purchased via
2022 Newbery Medal Winner

The Last Cuentista won the Newbery Medal. Everyone should read it. The writing is lyrical, lush, and gorgeous. It talks about the power of Story, greater than anything.

As the story begins, Petra and her family are getting ready to leave earth. She misses her grandmother Lita, who told her a story about Halley's Comet as a fire snake with bad eyesight that accidentally hit its mother, earth, and destroyed it.

It feels wrong to be sneaking off Earth while so many are left behind. They don't even inform my parents of our destination until the day before. Dad says Pleiades had been storing their ships in a massive underground facility at the old Denver airport -- they weren't supposed to leave Earth on their first official trip for another two years. The maiden test flights into nearby space a few months earlier had been successful, but because we're now leaving so suddenly, this will be the first interstellar journey.

If a solar flare hadn't shifted the comet off course a week earlier, we'd be watching Fire Snake harmlessly pass Earth in a few days like it had since the beginning of time.

Petra and her brother Javier are prepared to go into a stasis pod. They will sleep for three hundred and eighty years and wake up ready to go to a new planet, named Sagan, where another ship has already gone to terraform. Scientists like Petra's parents will help set up life on the new settlement -- and Petra and Javier have custom programming that will go into their brains while in stasis, so they will wake up scientific experts as well.

As they go into stasis, Petra learns that her desired elective -- storytelling -- was overridden by her parents. She doesn't want to be a scientist. She wants to be a Cuentista like her grandmother.

Not everyone on the spaceship will be in stasis. The Monitors will spend their lives in space making sure that those in the pods are safe.

But something goes wrong from the very start when Petra is supposed to go to sleep. And when she wakes up, near the planet, she discovers the Collective has taken over. They expect her to answer to the name Zeta-1 and serve the Collective.

The story is compelling and beautifully written. But I had problems with it that I've had with other dystopian fiction. I couldn't get around my questions of why? Why would the Collective want to ban memories of earth and ban stories? The explanation given was that earth was a place of war and they were starting over, but I didn't buy it. I didn't think people leaving their home planet would want to forget everything.

I also couldn't really bring myself to believe in the magic technology that could reprogram brains -- and somehow didn't work on Petra. And Petra could make people remember despite that. So although I see the amazing craft in the book, I could never quite suspend my disbelief and really believe it would happen that way.

But it won the Newbery. So there are many people who didn't have any problem with those things. Try it yourself! Read this beautiful story and then tell me what you think: Were you pulled into this tale of the last survivors of humankind?