Review of the Day: The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
** spoiler alert – Plot giveaways ahead **
The worst thing you can do to your dystopia is to let it grow stale. After all, the true joy of science fiction is its capacity for variety. Say the term “science fiction” and it conjures up images of robots and space rockets and the like. All fine and good things but the whole point of the genre is to think up things that could be. And what could be is infinite. That’s why it’s so silly when science fiction books for kids get all samey. The sky’s the limit (a silly phrase in this case since a lot of these books go far beyond the sky but you get what I’m saying). We’ve seen recent strides in middle grade science fiction stories that include non-binary or queer characters, and more than a few have intersectional leanings (the Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl comes immediately to mind). All this is to say that I probably should have been ready for the conjurings out of the brain of Donna Barba Higuera in The Last Cuentista but there’s something to be said for pleasant surprises too. A delicious mix of dystopian fiction, Mexican folklore, and good old-fashioned high drama, this is the kind of science fiction that has the potential to lure in even those people that don’t usually indulge in futuristic fantastical imaginings.
Halley’s Comet, man. Who knew it would spell the end of Earth? But when its trajectory got knocked off-course, it ended up headed straight for our planet. Now only three ships holding a scant couple thousand people on each will contain the last of humanity. They’re heading to Sagan, a planet that should be able to support life. The catch? It’ll take three hundred and eighty years to get there. Petra, her little brother Javier, and her mom and dad are some of the lucky ones. They’ll be put to sleep the whole time with recordings connected directly to their brains to teach them everything they’ll need to know when they arrive. But Petra doesn’t want to be a scientist like her parents. She loves her grandmother’s folktales and yearns to be a storyteller too. She expects she’ll be given them to listen to and then arrive into the future full of stories. What she doesn’t expect is that in the intervening three hundred some years a revolution will occur amongst the awake Monitors that are supposed to tend to the sleeping passengers. When she resurfaces, Petra will find that she’s perhaps the only person on the ship with memories of Earth. Because now the ones in charge are people with genetically enhanced transparent skin. People with a singular mind. People who would do anything to keep the knowledge Petra has from getting out.
Stephen King once wrote a truly horrifying short story about space travel and a family having to be put asleep for the trip called “The Jaunt”. I guess it affected me more than I thought, particularly because I instantly thought of it in the book’s early moments. That’s when Petra discovers she hasn’t been properly put to sleep and can hear everything going on around her. She worries considerably that she’ll be awake for hundreds of years and frets about what that might do to her sanity. Space travel science fiction for kids is, as I mentioned, generally kept a pretty safe place. Higuera isn’t afraid to inject hers with a little fear. At one point in the tale Petra tells someone the story of la Llorona and you understand how the stories Petra tells and the stories Higuera is telling both require a bit of fear to make their best work. And it is Petra’s storytelling that is her secret gift. With storytelling she can overcome the barbarity of her enemies. She can break through false narratives and plant real ones. And she can ultimately win the day. This book is probably one of the best defenses of storytelling you’ll find in a novel for kids for quite a long time.
Of course, there’s a sadness at the core of the book, but I found personal ways around that. I mean, I can’t be the only reader that found out that Petra’s parents were dead and gave a sigh of relief. Is that terrible? Killing off the parents is a time-honored tradition in children’s literature and The Last Cuentista is no exception. It’s a little weird, but as an adult reading this book I found myself getting nervous about our main character having to protect her closest family members from the future in which they found themselves. Removing Mom and Dad from the picture frees up a book’s hero considerably. Not that Petra doesn’t feel responsible for others, but it does give her ample opportunities to become an active protagonist. Petra, I am sure, would love to be passive. But as passivity is precisely what the “Collective” would want from her, she is forced into a position of planning, strategy, and escape. Some of the best moments of the book are when she puts her plans into action. It’s fun to watch an author think through various contingencies (particularly when they’re contingencies that they themselves imagined).
It’s so tricky for a book to be both a standalone success and open to sequels. Higuera walks that line as delicately as she can. This isn’t an ending along the lines of other dystopian children’s classics like The Giver. Higuera knows that short of making this book 500-pages long, the smartest thing is to give it a temporary happy ending. I am dead certain a sequel will come along, but I for one will enjoy the ending spelled out for us here. It’s rooted in hope, one of the book’s many themes, and something we need increasingly in our children’s books these days. So for the kid that likes their science fiction dark with marvelous villains and a strong core message about individuality, storytelling, and hope, I can’t think of a better book to hand over. A dystopia you’ll be happy to dive into deeply.
On shelves October 12th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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