Donna Barba Higuera joined us for the very first author interaction of the 2022 NLF Reading Challenge. Her second novel, The Last Cuentista, from which she performed the reading, received the prestigious John Newbery Medal and the Pura Belpré Children’s Author Award in 2022. It was highlighted early in the conversation how the book gives oral storytelling – pride of place. Donna said,
“As humans, we all have our unique stories – each and every one of us, even if we’re from the same culture or race. We’re not meant to all be the same and I wanted to show (through my writing) how we should have pride in all that we are.”
She recalled one of her childhood experiences: “When I was younger, I was embarrassed and ashamed to share my own stories. It can be scary sometimes to write these things down, but then to have others read them and connect with me has meant so much to me!”
Donna had discussed how her book started off as a writing prompt wherein she had to rewrite a fairy tale. This pushed her to begin working on the initial draft of the same story, as it stuck with her. In due course, with assistance from editors and inspired by Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers, she went through with it.
“I kept trying different picture books and they never felt quite right. The book Dreamers represents people who are traveling or migrating, maybe are fearful, but at the same time hopeful for a new home. This is exactly what Petra (the protagonist in The Last Cuentista) and her family represent too.”
Often, fables and folktales tend to typecast their female characters which could possibly lead to a sense of feeling left out of the narrative. Donna explained how while penning Petra’s character, she tried to reclaim these stories like that of her own and her readers who may find themselves in the margin.
“When I was writing this book, I decided that I’m the one who gets to decide how these stories are told. The word “cuentista” means storyteller but it also has a connotation that maybe the storyteller isn’t always telling you the truth. So, this was one of the themes within this book…I think that’s a great tool that storytellers have – depending on what’s going on in the world, we can change stories and make them our own, to help digest and process what’s happening around us.”
On being asked about how much the idea of bringing forth stories from the past, to build stories of the future resonates with readers of genres like sci-fi and fantasy, Donna elaborated upon the relevance of history. “You can change things when it comes to fiction.”
She added, “You can build a new society, planet, or an entire spaceship – but all of those things have a basis in history and that’s where stories come from.”
An interesting question came from one of the viewers about what significance an award like the Newbery has for the author, to which she replied,
“When I was your age, I would walk into my school library and they would have the Newbery books lined up on the shelf. I’d see those books, the golden sticker, and think to myself ‘Oh there’s something more magical about those books’. To think that a child might walk into a library and see my books and the sticker and think that there must be something more magical about the book, that’s amazing.”
Donna got up, close and personal about her mother’s health condition being a major source of inspiration. “Watching my mother navigate her vision problems (retinitis pigmentosa), I knew I wanted to show through my character that her vision impairment did not define her, even though it could be a challenge at times. She was still so much more than just that one thing, and that’s the way I viewed my mother.”
When asked for advice on what can be done to make reading cool for young readers, Donna said, “I think the reader gets to decide what’s cool. Reading is really cool and there are so many different genres and books that you can choose from. You just have to search around and see what speaks to you. Once you find that, don’t let anybody tell you it’s not cool!”
About the Author
Donna Barba Higuera is a Pura Belpré Laureate who has won accolades such as the Newbery Award and the Sid Fleischman honor. She has spent her whole life weaving folklore and her own experiences into stories that captivate her imagination. She now weaves them into picture books and novels. The Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and TIME named her debut novel, Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, one of the Best Books of the Year. Being biracial may be…complicated, from language differences to cultural disparities. Characters, like Donna, deal with more than simply the peculiar things that happen to them in their life.
About the Book
The Last Cuentista is a middle-grade dystopian tale that chronicles the life of Petra Peña, who aspires to be a storyteller like her Abuelita. When a comet is going to strike Earth, she leaves the planet along with her family and a few hundred others, to continue the human race.
About the NLF Reading Challenge
The NLF Reading Challenge is a four-month-long reading event from March to June 2022, involving students between 10 to 13 years of age. It runs for participants across India on the competitive and non-competitive tracks. In addition to fun book-based activities and regular author interactions, the challenge will conclude with a quiz competition that will see the three best teams win gold, silver, and bronze engraved trophies respectively, certificates of achievement, and a great set of books!