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Book Review: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barbra Higuera

The stories we tell ourselves make us who we are.

Last cuentistaI discovered The Last Cuentista from a patron review I edited on the library blog. It’s a middle grade novel that won the Newbery last year and belongs to the humans-travel-to-a-new-planet genre of science fiction. 

Petra Peña’s family is chosen to take a spaceship to a possibly-habitable planet because of her mother’s botany expertise. Earth is about to be untenably altered by Halley’s Comet, which has been shunted off course by unusual solar winds, setting it on a trajectory to hit earth. There are two groups of people on the ship: the ones who will be put into a sort of cryo sleep until the ship arrives at the new planet in more than 350 years, and the guardians, who will live, raise new generations, and die aboard the planet, taking care of the sleeping population. While they sleep, an implanted device will download skills and knowledge, so that when they wake they will be able to work efficiently, despite their age. 

When Petra wakes up once the ship reaches the new planet, she learns that she is the only human who remembers earth life; the guardians have become a collective, a group of genetically-created humanoids who have an entirely different goal: eliminate conflict by eliminating diversity. She has to try to figure out how to save her knowledge about  humanity (her implanted device taught her botany skills but also the books and stories from most of human history), save the few remaining sleepers, and meet up with the survivors of the ship that left before hers.

I decided to pick this up after reading a review submitted by a patron for our library blog. I liked the mix of concepts the book presents, the contrast between Petra’s desire to continue her grandmother’s storytelling role and the science she learns when she is sleeping. I also enjoyed the way the story is told, moving between some of Petra’s earth memories, her experiences as she wakes on the ship, and some adventures she has on the new planet. I loved the way the stories she tells to the surviving sleepers help them move forward in their new life.

While I read it, though, I felt extremely aware of how I was not the audience for this book, which is a junior novel (so, written for kids about 8-12 years old). The science in this science fiction book felt thin and a little bit vague, which I think is appropriate for the audience. It’s definitely a book I would have loved as a kid, and honestly: it’s a story I would like to read if it was written for an adult audience. 

In fact, it reminded me that middle grade novels are often the hardest ones for me to read, because I struggle to connect with the reader I was as a child who could experience stories without thinking, “yes, but, wait a second…” Which isn’t, of course, a failure of the book but a trait of mine as a reader.

This one is perfect for curious young readers who want a thoughtful, brave main character.


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