2022 Newbery and Pura Belpré Award winner: The Last Cuentista
The Last Cuentista
Written by Donna Barba Higuera
Published by Levine Querido, 2021
ISBN # 978-1-64614-089-3
Grades 5 and up
Había una vez . . . in the year 2061, a solar flare alters the course of Halley’s Comet, leaving only one week until it strikes Earth. Petra’s family is one of the few selected to board three colonization ships that will take them to Sagan, a planet hundreds of years away that has been deemed suitable for human life. After waking in 2422 from the stasis that allowed them to make the interstellar journey, Petra discovers an ominous Collective has seized control of the ship and purged all memories of Earth, along with anyone who does not serve their purpose. Only she remembers their home, fueled with the stories her abuelita told her before they left. It is up to her to help her fellow survivors regain their memories of their past to ensure hope for the future. Donna Barba Higuera’s Newbery Award and Pura Belpré Award winning novel nimbly mixes Spanish and English and draws from various storytelling genres to do what speculative fiction does best – imagine the latent possibilities in a given society, challenge readers to contemplate the promises and risks, and invite us to form new understandings about the world we live in now. An absorbing text to either ground or supplement language arts, science, social studies, and multilingual curricula, The Last Cuentista proves that what humanity needs to survive is more complex and precious than what we may initially understand.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you.
The Art of Storytelling. Despite the scientific preparation she receives from her parents and the En Cognito program for practical usefulness on Sagan, Petra believes that stories play a critical role in ensuring a society’s prosperity. Storytelling, however, is not as easy as it seems, and skilled storytellers will explain how they study and practice it as a craft. Have students explore and practice the art of storytelling. They might tell a favorite fairy tale, family story, or a story they’ve written themselves. To help them tell their story, use a graphic organizer that helps them plot out the structure, such as problem-action-solution or challenge-strategy-ending. You might also refer to storytelling resources like Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book, NPR’s Story Corps, the National Storytelling Network, Bill Gordh’s storyteller website, and Emma Coats’ “22 Storytelling Basics” (see Further Explorations section below).
Storytelling Tropes and Structures. Related to the Teaching Idea listed above, lead an inquiry project in which students explore the tropes and structures of storytelling across various cultures and genres. For example, Anglo-Saxon fairy tales often begin with the phrase “Once upon a time,” while Spanish-speaking cultures often use “”¡Y Colorín Colorado, este cuento se ha acabado!” or “¡Y Colorín Colorado, este cuento se ha terminado!” to end stories. Stories across various cultures may often include a clever, intrepid child or a magical object. Have students work in small groups to study and identify a variety of storytelling tropes and structures across diverse cultures. Then have them apply as many of those tropes and structures in the creation of their own stories. This Masterclass article is a useful resource for beginning this inquiry.
Goldilocks Planet. A Goldilocks planet is one that is “not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small, not too soft and not too hard” for life to exist. What other conditions might be necessary? For example, the proximity of Sagan’s sun poses a threat to the Collective, but not to humans. Share Curtis Manley’s nonfiction picturebook, Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet, and have students create their own Goldilocks planets with the conditions that they would deem “just right.” Maybe that means just the right amount of beaches or just the right amount of snow days. Have students create 3-D versions of their Goldilocks planets with accompanying text that explains why the planet is just right for them.
Introduction to Carl Sagan. The name of the planet that humans hope to populate is most likely a reference to the famous astronomer, Carl Sagan. With the help of your school or local librarian, gather a collection of multimodal texts about and written by Carl Sagan to share with your students to introduce them to his work and achievements. For example, you might want to share episodes of the popular 1980s television series Cosmos, read some of his popular science books such as The Pale Blue Dot, watch the YouTube clip about “The Pale Blue Dot,” read the picturebook biography Star Stuff, explore the Carl Sagan Institute, and watch the 1997 film Contact, which was inspired by his work. Invite students to share their learning through multimodal presentations, using the modality that best represents their learning strengths (e.g., webpage, visual art, performance, poetry, etc.). After learning more about him, invite students to discuss why Donna Barba Higuera might have named the planet Sagan.
Sustaining Humanity. The characters and forces in the novel have differing beliefs about what is necessary to carry on human life. Have students create lists of what those beliefs are. What do the governments in 2061 believe are necessary? What do the families who are selected to go to Sagan believe? What do the guardians believe? What does the Collective believe? Compare and contrast the various lists and discuss why such different opinions exist. Then, invite students to brainstorm and discuss what they believe is needed to sustain human life.
“The Stories of Our Ancestors.” Lita tells Petra,”Never be ashamed of where you come from, or the stories your ancestors bring to you. Make them your own” (p. 122). The stories and folklore that Lita tells shape so much of Petra’s understanding of the world and the life-changing events she experiences, so much that Petra uses them not only to make sense of the cataclysm, but also to comfort her human companions. What cultural and generational stories circulate within your students’ families? Invite students to share them via storytelling, or invite families and community members to tell the stories to your class. Encourage students to write the stories down as well, or storytell them via multimedia tools, to share with the rest of the school and community. For help in preparing students to engage in the art of storytelling, visit some of the websites listed in Further Explorations below.
Translanguaging in Children’s Literature. Translanguaging is the skill of using different languages flexibly and skillfully when communicating a thought. Petra and her family shift between English and Spanish, often within the same sentence, to communicate, showing their dexterity with multiple languages. Interestingly, Donna Barba Higuera does not translate some of the Spanish lines in The Last Cuentista. Have students identify the examples of translanguaging within the text and determine why they are included. What does the use of translanguaging, rather than sticking solely to English, add to or emphasize in the story? What does the author’s decision to not translate the Spanish lines suggest about the future of language? What does it suggest about young people’s use of translanguaging today? Enlist the help of your Spanish-speaking students, staff, and community members to read aloud, translate, and discuss those parts of The Last Cuentista with the monolingual students in your class. Have students then work collaboratively with those community members to create back matter, bookmarks, charts, and webpage glossaries that act as translation tools. Other books
The Newbery Medal. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. Learn more about the award at the ALA/ALSC website. Gather a collection of Newbery Medal winners from past years and invite children to browse them and make observations. What patterns do they see in the books that have won in recent years? What changes do they see? Have students construct a list of qualities of The Last Cuentista that they believe led to the novel being chosen as the award winner. Then have students review the actual criteria for the Newbery Medal. Do they agree that The Last Cuentista deserved the Newbery Medal? Why or why not? Have students apply the criteria to other children’s books they have read to see how they hold up to the qualities of the Newbery Medal winner. You can find Classroom Bookshelf entries on the past Newbery Medal winners: When You Trap a Tiger, Hello, Universe, Last Stop on Market Street, The Crossover, Flora and Ulysses, The One and Only Ivan, Dead End in Norvelt, and Moon Over Manifest.
The Pura Belpré Award. Learn more about the Pura Belpré Award at the ALA/ASLC website. Gather a collection of author award winners and illustrator award winners from past years and invite children to browse them and make observations. Engage older students in a discussion of the benefits of recognizing diversity in children’s books (see the We Need Diverse books website for resources). Have students review the criteria for the Pura Belpré Award and apply them to other children’s and young adult book written by Latinx writers about the Latinx cultural experience. You can find Classroom Bookshelf entries on the past Author and Illustrator Award winners: May Your Life Be Deliciosa, Dancing Hands, La Princesa and the Pea, Juana & Lucas, Funny Bones, Drum Dream Girl, Niño Wrestles the World, Grandma’s Gift, Diego Rivera, His World and Ours, The Dreamer, and Separate is Never Equal.
Intertextuality and Literary Allusions. The characters in this novel often refer to various books they’ve read, naming them by title at times. These other books often illuminate the characters’ discussions and understandings of the events around them, with one picturebook in particular, Yuyi Morales’ Dreamers, proving useful in important ways. Why might an author include both literary allusions and specific, detailed references like this? What should a reader know in order to understand them? Have students identify some of these allusions and references—or what they think are allusions—in The Last Cuentista. Read some excerpts from the primary sources, and then discuss how those allusions and references relate to what’s happening in the novel. For students who are brand new to the concept of literary allusions and references, you might want to first model these activities with a book like Previously (see Further Explorations section below), which provides a variety of allusions to a series of fairy tales, or Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?, by Avi, which hides clues to a mystery in four other children’s books. As an extension, you might want to share the Coretta Scott King Honor Book The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson, and the Newbery Award winner When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead, both of which specifically reference and draw inspiration from other Newbery winners.
Speculative Fiction Genre Study. The Last Cuentista is a speculative fiction novel that incorporates elements of the subgenres of dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. Engage students in an inquiry project about the different subgenres of speculative fiction, investigating their structural organization, linguistic features, range of content, genre tropes, and social purposes. Share the Book Riot article, “What is Speculative Fiction?”, with them to establish some foundational understandings. Starting with titles readily available in their classroom and school library, have students search for examples of each subgenre, noting which examples are their favorites and why. Make sure they are able to explain why these books would be classified as speculative fiction, using criteria from their understandings of the genre. Some examples of speculative fiction they may have already read in school or at home include Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Challenge your students to try their own hand at writing speculative fiction. Celebrate their learning with a storytelling celebration or a written anthology of stories to share with friends and family.
Individual Differences and Collectives. Throughout the novel, the goals and unity of the Collective are positioned in stark contrast to the goals and differences of individuals. Are they really such diametrical opposites, though? While collecting rocks to make into a rosary, Petra’s father tells her, “They’re not meant to be identical; they’re meant to complement one another. Differences make things beautiful as a whole” (p. 63). At the same time, the Collective exalts the idea of harmony working toward the greater good. Can individuality and collectivism work co-exist? Can they work together toward the same goal? Is one necessarily bad and the other good? Invite students to debate this topic, guiding them to support their thinking with information from The Last Cuentista as well as other texts they have read.
John Newbery Medal
Pura Belpré Award
Donna Barba Higuera’s website
NPR’s Story Corps
National Storytelling Network
Websites about Carl Sagan
- Carl Sagan Institute – https://carlsaganinstitute.cornell.edu/
- Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO5FwsblpT8
- Carl Sagan’s (1980) Cosmos series – https://www.filmsforaction.org/watch/carl-sagans-cosmos-a-personal-voyage-1980/
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About Grace Enriquez
Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.
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