Last weekend brought a double measure of good news to Donna Barba Higuera, each dose delivered via a sneaky yet rewarding ruse as the author learned that she had been awarded the 2022 Newbery Medal for her third children’s book, The Last Cuentista (Levine Querido), and that the novel had also won the Pura Belpré Author Award.
Barba Higuera, who lives in Issaquah, Wash., was asked by her publisher to join Zoom meetings on both Saturday and Sunday, allegedly with folks from Barnes & Noble, to discuss promotional plans for her previous novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance. When she logged on the first day, the author (who was in Hawaii with her family, preparing to go hiking) was greeted by her editor, Nick Thomas, and some unfamiliar faces—none belonging to B&N staffers. When instead she received word of receiving the Pura Belpré Award, the author recalled, “I immediately lost it! I was overwhelmed by such a huge mix of emotions—mostly pure happiness, which for me comes out in a flood of tears.”
But the surprises, and the tears, didn’t end there. Informed that the actual B&N rendezvous was a Zoom meeting with her on Sunday, Barba Higuera gamely signed on at the appointed time. On the screen was another crew of unfamiliar attendees, who shared the news of her Newbery win. “I felt like a deer in headlights, and thought I had the wrong Zoom meeting,” she said. “Then they told me they were the Newbery committee, and once again I began sobbing and experienced another roller coaster of emotions. ‘Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, double shame on gullible me!’ ”
In The Last Cuentista, which weaves together Mexican folklore and science fiction, aspiring storyteller Petra Peña awakens on a new planet hundreds of years after Earth’s destruction, the only person alive who holds the stories of the past, and any hope for the future.
The novel is closely aligned with the heart and history of the author, who grew up Chicana in the central valley of California in the 1970s and ’80s. “This book is based on stories that are deep within me,” she said. “I was raised on a mix of Mexican folklore, bedtime stories from my grandmother and father, and science fiction—from sources like Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. And I come from a long line of ‘cuentistas,’ storytellers and embellishers—I jokingly tell my kids that I am a clever liar. Petra, the novel’s heroine, is a storyteller who repeats a lot of stories she heard growing up, and in that way the novel is a bit autobiographical.”
Despite its organic origin, the novel had a lengthy gestation, the author explained. After deciding to give a traditional fairy tale a science-fiction twist “many, many years ago,” Barba Higuera selected The Princess and the Pea and began writing a short story about a girl who didn’t sleep for hundreds of years while traveling through space to a new planet. “The storyline intrigued me, so I decided to revisit it with a more complete character,” the author explained. “Petra’s love of story is similar to my own. Stories are so precious, and I began thinking about what would happen if another culture took over and wanted to erase our stories. It was a bizarre premise, but it haunted me, and I had to get it out of my system. And that short story eventually became The Last Cuentista.”
Given how personal a journey creating the novel was for Barba Higuera, she was surprised by the enthusiastic reception it received. And extraordinarily gratified. “It’s complicated when you’re mixed-race and sometimes feel like you are not white enough and not Mexican American enough,” she noted. “When I was writing The Last Cuentista, I was a bit nervous about how Petra’s story of navigating what it means to be mixed-race would be received by those whose experiences are so very different. But I think when readers learn this character’s story through her, they find they are no longer afraid of what they might not have understood before. Suddenly they are not only comfortable with another culture, they have made a friend.”
And as a newly minted Newbery and Pura Belpré medalist, is Barba Higuera intimidated by the challenge of meeting readers’ sky-high expectations going forward? “Well, that thought is a bit scary, sure. But whenever I write, I just have to tune out the outside world anyway and let my imagination take the reins. When I am in that world of storytelling and writing, awards can’t come with me. I have to put them aside and focus on being a clever liar. It’s actually quite cathartic.”