#IntlYALitMonth: The Last Cuentista

The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera

The Last Cuentista is about the power of stories in our lives. When Halley’s Comet goes on a collision course for Earth in the year 2061, Petra Peña, a 13-year-old storyteller — a cuentista — along with her younger brother and parents (scientists who specialize in botany), and other specialized citizens, board a spaceship to escape the disaster. Petra learned how to be a cuentista from her grandmother, who did not qualify for passage on the ship. “I can’t believe we’re leaving you,” Petra tells her grandmother the day they depart. Her grandmother answers: “It’s impossible for you to leave me. I’m part of you. You’re taking me and my stories to a new planet and hundreds of years into the future. How lucky I am.” Although impossibly sad to leave Earth, and especially her grandmother, Petra is buoyed by the hope that the memories of humanity on Earth can continue on through sharing the stories her grandmother has shared with her.

Petra and her family are told that, once aboard the ship, they and the other passengers will all be asleep for the 380-year journey to Sagan, a planet in a different solar system that scientists think can support life. The passengers will be awakened when landing is imminent. A skeleton crew remains awake on the ship for the journey, with the role of them and the generations that come after them is to take care of the ship and the sleeping passengers.

But when Petra wakes up in the future, not yet at Sagan, things are not as they were promised. Petra is one of the last to be awakened, and she quickly learns that most passengers were awakened early, some hundreds of years ago, to help with the ship’s voyage. Petra is now the only person aboard the ship who remembers Earth. While she was asleep, a sinister Collective took over the ship and wiped everyone’s memories, with the goal of erasing all knowledge of Earth and humanity. What’s more, they are no longer on a direct path to Sagan. Petra must forge her own path forward as she struggles to keep the myths and fairy tales she remembers from her life on Earth alive, all the while keeping it a secret that she has any memories at all.

Readers will root for Petra as she struggles against the misdirected forces aboard the ship. To keep alive the lessons, memories, and stories of centuries, if not millennia, of humans on Earth, Petra uses her stories to entertain and comfort the other children aboard the ship. In the process of doing so, Petra (and the reader!) realizes just how important stories are to shaping our understanding of our experience of life, that the history of humanity is a guide for doing better, and that meaning and purpose can be found in the simplest of tales.

Awards: 2022 Newbery Award Winner, 2022 Pura Belpre Award Winner, 2022 Cybils Award Finalist.

erin sladen (they/them) is a librarian at the Denver Public Library in Colorado, where they coordinate and create readers’ advisory services through a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens across 27 branches and the library’s website. They lead the creation of Core Collections, teach collection maintenance procedures to staff, cover a public service desk, and much more. erin has worked in libraries for 13 years. They live with two cats, nearly 50 houseplants, an always-growing vinyl collection, and a lot of yarn.

This month’s curator for #IntlYALitMonth is Julia E. Torres. JULIA E. TORRES is a nationally recognized veteran language arts teacher, librarian, and teen programs administrator in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia’s work has been featured on NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice Magazine, School Library Journal, American Libraries Magazine, and many more. She is a Book Love Foundation board member, Educolor Working Group member, a Book Ambassador for The Educator Collaborative, and a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Her co-authored title, Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Teens and Tweens, is just the first of many forthcoming publications for librarians and educators. Connect with Julia at juliaetorres.com or on social media @juliaerin80

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