“The Last Cuentista” by Donna Barba Higuera is a dark dystopian science fiction novel mixed with Mexican folklore for middle-grade readers. It won the 2022 Newbery Medal. It is not for the faint of heart, but the journey is definitely worth it.
Halley’s Comet’s trajectory has gotten knocked off-course, and it is headed straight for Earth. Only a few thousand people are among those headed for a new home on Sagan. Petra, her parents de ella and her little brother, Javier, are among those lucky few selected to escape the destruction and travel for 300 years to their new home. 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 does not want to be a scientist like her parents. She loves her grandmother’s folktales and years to be a storyteller too. She requests folktales and fairy tales in addition to the scientific knowledge she will need. What no one anticipated is the revolution that takes place. It is brewing on Earth before they depart, and it becomes essential to the story once they are in space.
The new political party, known as the Collective, wants to erase all the differences and animosities from the world. They want everyone to be the same. They have infiltrated the Monitors who are supposed to take care of the ships and sleepers during transit to Sagan. Now, 300 years later, 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.
Petra wakes up with several other children her age to ship very differently from when she went to sleep. The Collective has completely taken over the ship and purged anyone who could not be brought into the fold. They have reprogrammed the knowledge downloads to erase everything except for what they need. Petra is programmed to be a Zeta and an expert in biology. However her programming of her did n’t fully take, and she still remembers the past. To her horror of her, she discovers what the Collective has done with the past 300 years and realizes she must escape with the other Zetas to the new world. She brings them to her side of her through accounts (stories). With her accounts of her, she breaks through the horror of the Collective and brings to light the past to help the other Zetas remember who they were before all knowledge of Earth is erased forever.
This was much darker than I thought it was going to be. It is a bit of “The Giver” mixed with “Brave New World.” The fate of the colonists and Petra’s family is pretty horrific, and the ending is just ambiguous enough that we don’t really know what is going to happen. However, I loved the storytelling aspect of this book. The importance of remembering the past through generations and storytelling really comes through as Petra tells accounts to the other Zetas and herself to remember their history and hopefully shape their future.
Angie Bayne is the children’s services manager at the Missouri River Regional Library.
Print Headline: From the Stacks: Dark, science fiction novels focuses on importance of storytelling