Review: The Last Cuentista

Posted January 29, 2022 by Richetta in #ownvoices, Book Reviews, Middle Grades / 0 Comments

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I received this book for free from Levine Querido and in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.

Review: The Last CuentistaThe Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera
Length: 8 hours 33 min
Published by Chronicle Books, Levine Querido on October 12, 2021
Genres: Juvenile Fiction / Dystopian, Juvenile Fiction / Fairy Tales & Folklore / General, Juvenile Fiction / Fantasy & Magic
Pages: 336
Format: ARC, Audiobook
Source: Levine Querido and
Buy on AmazonBuy on Bookshop

Winner of the John Newbery Medal
Winner of the Pura Belpré Award

TIME's Best Books of the Year
Wall Street Journal's Best of the Year
Minneapolis Star Tribune's Best of the Year
Boston Globe's Best of the Year
BookPage's Best of the Year
Publishers Weekly's Best of the Year
School Library Journal's Best of the Year
Kirkus Reviews' Best of the Year
Bank Street's Best of the Year
Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best
New York Public Library Best of the Year
A Junior Library Guild Selection
Cybils Award Finalist

From Pura Belpré Award winner and Newbery Medalist, Donna Barba Higuera—a brilliant journey through the stars, to the very heart of what makes us human.

"Gripping in its twists and turns, and moving in its themes – truly a beautiful cuento."—New York Times

"Clever and compelling ... wonderfully subversive."—The Wall Street Journal

★ "This tale packs a wallop. Exquisite."—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

★ "Gripping, euphonious, and full of storytelling magic."—Publishers Weekly (starred)

★ "A strong, heroic character, fighting incredible odds to survive and protect others."—School Library Journal (starred)

Había una vez . . .

There lived a girl named Petra Peña, who wanted nothing more than to be a storyteller, like her abuelita.

But Petra's world is ending. Earth has been destroyed by a comet, and only a few hundred scientists and their children – among them Petra and her family – have been chosen to journey to a new planet. They are the ones who must carry on the human race.

Hundreds of years later, Petra wakes to this new planet – and the discovery that she is the only person who remembers Earth. A sinister Collective has taken over the ship during its journey, bent on erasing the sins of humanity's past. They have systematically purged the memories of all aboard – or purged them altogether.

Petra alone now carries the stories of our past, and with them, any hope for our future. Can she make them live again?

Book cover of The Last Cuentista
Isn’t this cover beautiful?! It captures both the Mexican folklore and the futurism of the story so magnificently. Buy The Last Cuentista on Bookshop

Storytelling, Mexican Folklore and Futurism

I don’t really know how to start this review other than to state that The Last Cuentista is absolutely awesome and beautiful. If you read Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” and other short stories in school, then you will immediately recognize that this middle grade book is a star in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category. I say this confidently. Not only did I love this book. Not only do I think it should be an immediate add to curriculum novel studies. But I am also now backed up by the fact that it recently won the Newbery Award for 2021!!!!

Beautiful Narration in the Audiobook

I listened to the audiobook of The Last Cuentista that was gifted to me by the Libro.Fm Educator ALC Program. I could only describe my experience of listening to Frankie Corzo narrate this novel as the following. It was like I was a little kid sitting at the feet of a storyteller as twilight falls and the fire roars. Her voice pulled me completely into the story. I didn’t even bother to speed up the pace. I usually listen to audiobooks at 1.25x speed. But this time I just wanted to savor her narration. I’ve actually listened to her before when she narrated an essay in the Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed collection edited by Saraciea J. Fennell.

A Story of Survival and Memory

The Last Cuentista is a dystopian story about survival and the power of stories and history. It begins in the year 2061. Earth is about to be destroyed by a comet that the main character, Petra Pena, calls Fire Snake. The novel begins with Petra’s abuela Lita telling her a traditional Mexican story about Fire Snake. Petra wants to one day become a storyteller like her abuela and it is the one hope she holds onto as she, her parents and her little brother Javier prepare to board a ship and leave the planet. Petra’s parents are scientists and they will be part of the new society of survivors once they are awakened 400 years from now, once they have reached a new planet called Sagan.

But there is a contingent, called the Collective, who wants to forget Earth’s history and start anew with everyone being the same and equal. “Join us. Our Collective is stronger as a single unit. With your trust, we can erase the hurt and pain of the past. We will… create a new history.”

In a conversation that Petra overhears of her parents, Petra’s Dad voices his concerns about the Collective. He says, “Equality’s good. But equality and sameness are two different things. Sometimes those who say things without really contemplating what it truly means… That dogma runs a thin line.” We have a group that wants to forget everything, erase history and start over. And we have people like Petra’s Dad who insists we must remember the past in order to do better for future generations. The contrast between the two visions sets up a very suspenseful journey for Petra. Especially when she wakes up and she is the only one who remembers Earth…

Shoutouts for Beautiful Representation

I’m not going to go too much further into the story, because I want you to be on the edge of your seat like I was. So I’m going to do some shoutouts for representation in The Last Cuentista. Higuera includes two items that had me doing a fist pump when I read them. Petra is a child of 12, who is about to go on the journey of her life to save her life. There are two items mentioned early on that I loved were included. The first is Petra’s American Girl Josefina Doll! At her age, she admits that it is a sort of stress doll that she keeps close. The second item, which has a prominent position in the story is the book Dreamers by Yuyi Morales. I would like to add a chef’s kiss for the beautiful cover designed by Raxenne Maniquiz.


I came for… the intriguing plot

I stayed for… what was going to happen when Petra woke up!!! 😨

Hot Cocoa Moments: Like I said earlier, the nod to Dreamers by Yuyi Morales was awesome.

Would I Read it Again: Yes! This book is an automatic classic.

Educator Recommendations: Where do I start… First, I would do a project called, What Would You Bring With You? I’d asked students to choose 1-2 items that mean the most to them and they would want as a keepsake if they were going to go on a long journey or start a new life somewhere. How do you think the object’s meaning might change as you get older? What impact do you think it will have on others that are with you or that you encounter on your journey?

Second, I would have a discussion or debate based on the premises that the Collective and Petra’s father set up in the beginning of the story. I’d have students also dig into the quote I mentioned above about equality and sameness. That discussion would be rich. I’d also have students do an exploration into Mexican folklore. I might even have them think of stories they know from their own culture or family and think about if they could only bring one story with them 400 years into the future, what would it be and why? I could go on and on with ideas. Here is a link to the official Educator’s Guide.

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