Interview with Newbery Author Donna Barba Higuera
The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera won the Newbery award this year! I recently had the immense pleasure of speaking to the story’s author about this beautiful and powerful book.
Winning the Newbery
APP: Congratulations Donna !! How does it feel to win a Newbery award as a Latinx writer?
DBH: How does it feel? I mean, my initial reaction was shock! Having a story like this represented as a Newbery, where they’re looking at all books, and all cultures is huge to me. I never thought that a book like this would get noticed because it does represent my culture and kids like I was who need to see themselves in books. But I also think that a reason that it’s important to me is because kids from outside cultures can pick up a book that is not about their culture and they learn something. So I love that this book will allow some children to do that.
APP: I agree, it’s such an important book for the Latinx community but also for those outside of the community to learn something about it, including some Spanish sprinkled throughout. Can you give us a quick summary of your book for those who haven’t read it?
DBH: Basically It’s about a girl, Petra, who is leaving Earth for the last time, and has to choose something to take that is most important to her. For her that’s story. But story is threatened to be erased by people going into the future. What it means to be human, Earth’s folklore, history, and mythology are all threatened. Petra, is trying to protect that. I hope that this book is one that kids will pick up and say, okay if I was leaving Earth for the last time, what would I do if I were Petra? What would I take with me?
APP: Yes, I’m sure kids will wonder what they would take with them, I know I did. Petra is an interesting character because she is very smart and capable but also has a major vulnerability. She has a serious vision challenge. Why did you decide to integrate that into her character?
DBH: My mother had retinitis pigmentosa, it’s a degenerative eye disease, and I’m an eye doctor. But I also wanted to show that someone like Petra, or my mother, are not defined by their disease. Just because Petra had a visual dysfunction that did not deter from her journey, or what she wanted to do.
It presented a challenge at times but I wanted to show a character who lived with that like my mother did. I wanted to show kids who are reading this that they may have challenges but they can overcome them. It’s okay to have challenges, we don’t have to fix everything. Challenges are part of who we are as humans.
The Power of Stories
APP: That is so true, and also so hard to accept sometimes. It is great to see a character that has a trait that can’t be fixed and has learned to live with. Like you, Petra is a storyteller. She tells cuentos (stories) told to her by her Abuela. In a way this grandmother, Lita, is on the journey as well though she is left behind on Earth. I felt that you were telling us that we can carry our history, the people we lose, and ourselves through stories. Is that something you were trying to do?
DBH: Yeah, that makes me very emotional. The opening scene was absolutely me getting to say goodbye to my grandmother. The things she taught me when I was younger, it wasn’t just about cooking and culture, it was the stories she told me. Some of them were incomplete. She didn’t remember or didn’t know them fully. They had been told to her as well. She stopped going to school when she was ten or eleven years old. Much of what she knew was through the tradition of oral storytelling.
I carry the stories and the things that my grandmother taught me throughout my daily life. This story allowed me to go back and revisit that, and what my grandmother meant to me, and the gifts that she gave me. Oftentimes, it was while she was cooking, or we were working in the yard, that she would tell her stories. Everything had a story. I look back on that and I think that storytelling isn’t always what we think of in the western way of telling stories. It isn’t always sitting down with a book, or a teacher telling a story that is very structured. A lot of storytelling in cultures happens naturally throughout life.
APP: That is so true, and I think that is a very common experience in many Latin American families. Our stories are part of what holds our families together. We carry our grandparents stories throughout our lives, even after we lose them. That is such an important and beautiful message in your book where the people who leave Earth have to leave so much behind. How did you decide what each person would take with them for your book, and what would you take if you had to make that choice?
DBH: You know, that’s such a good question. I decided I wanted to show people’s
personalities. They had a small amount of space, they could only take one or two things. I wanted to show based on people’s personalities, what they valued and what was important to them. Petra’s brother, Javier, brings his book. That was what was important to him. Petra brings a pendant from her grandmother. Her father brings a rosary. It wasn’t just about religion, he had made that rosary with his own hands, and with his daughter. He had made every single bead.
For me, it would be books. I would have to figure out a way to bring them all. I worry about getting older and losing my memory. Maybe this book is about getting older and losing your memories and my fear of losing my memories, and stories, and wanting to hold on to them. I’d be like Petra. She panicked and I would panic if I was going to lose all my stories. And of course, for Petra, the worst thing happens to her, which is probably my biggest fear. People lost their memories. What if that had been her, and she had lost her memory of love of story and the things she’s passionate about?
APP: It’s really scary to think about! And there is so much more going on in this book, it’s hard to talk about it all without giving it away. One thing I wanted to ask you about that intrigues me was the weaving of Javier’s picture book Dreamers into the narrative. How did you decide to use this book and did you talk to Yuyi Morales, the author, about using her book as an element in your story?
DBH: Another great question, I don’t think anybody’s asked me this. Originally, I started writing my book before I’d read Dreamers and had another placeholder book in that spot that didn’t quite fit the narrative of what I wanted. Then when I read Dreamers I thought, this is the book.
We had to make sure that the lines that I used were the ones I felt were most powerful for this book. You can’t just use the whole thing, we had to get permission. My editor got permission from her publisher to use those lines. Now people who hadn’t read Dreamers before are discovering it and finding it is so powerful and so emotional. I wanted to show things without feeling preachy, or trying to teach someone. I’d rather have a child read and they determine what message they can get from a story on their own. I know Yuyi Morales and am a fan of her writing. This is a tribute to her wor
APP: Absolutely, I love her book, and it was definitely the perfect choice for Javier. Your book is about adventure but also about love, family, and loss. How did you balance all of those big topics and did you worry that it would be too much for an MG audience to handle?
DBH: Yeah, I will say, I think that there are some readers where it may be too much. It’s an emotional book and it’s an emotional journey. I believe that when you have a message that may be sad or difficult to hear, you have to try and balance it with moments where you can take a breath. You need a slow scene, a family moment or humor. A moment where you can laugh and feel it’s okay again, a reset. It is difficult to write.
When I go back through revisions, I will go wow, that’s a lot! I need to dial it back a little bit. It’s a lot for middle grade and we debated moving it up to YA. The irony is that the YA audience has found it, and are reading it. Ultimately, I think it’s a book for all ages. People will get different messages from the reading at different ages. I remember when I was a kid reading Where The Red Fern Grows and just weeping. There are books like that. We need books that make us cry too.
What it means to be human
APP: Yes, often those are the books we remember the most because they have such an impact. We really care about the characters. In your book, I was very much drawn to the character of Voxy and his need for connection through cuentos. He will probably face a greater challenge than anyone as the story ends. Without giving away any spoilers, let’s talk about him for a minute.
DBH: I love that character. What I wanted to show is that you can change humans in certain ways, but you can’t breed the curiosity and wonder out of a child. He’s kind of like this little trickster guy, he sneaks around to hear the stories. I wanted to show that. He was willing to take big risks so he could hear these stories. But I wanted to show his innocence too. Even though he’s part of this ‘Collective’ that seems so structured and so driven, he is a human. He has his own feelings, and emotions and curiosity. I wanted to show that.
APP: I love Voxy, and how he reminds Petra of her little brother and his antics back on Earth. That sibling relationship between Petra and Javier is so meaningful. Both before and after they get on the ship. Their relationship turns into something we would never experience in the real world. I won’t delve too much into what happens between them, so as not to give it away, but how did you come up with that idea? I was completely taken by surprise.
DBH: It was in the very beginning when I was thinking of the story itself and dealing with time. That idea came to me. I said, oh my gosh that would be the most horrific thing to happen, and then I thought I had to do it. It was one of those things where my weird imagination was at work, probably while driving in my car. There were a few scenes that were really difficult to write, including that last scene with Javier. That was a very hard scene to write. I think a lot of the scenes in the book relate to the separation of families and how it just feels out of control. I wanted to show the horror of what happens when families are torn apart. It came about in a way it had to be told, but it was very difficult to write.
APP: Yes, family separation is such an important and timely topic among many Latinx families. This book feels like a story within a story within a story. I loved it. Let’s talk about the ending. We are left wondering what will happen to characters as the story ends. The final sounds we hear leave us with a feeling of hope, but without a certainty of what will happen. I’m thinking (hoping) there will be a sequel, am I right?
DBH: So, I think so. I’ve already written what happens next, we just chose not to use it in the novel. My editor was right. He said, that’s you as a writer needing closure and clarity on what happens to the characters. I do think it will come. I’m working on a different project right now but I do think there will be a sequel someday. I don’t know when. I wrote two or three more chapters, but not enough that’s formed into a book. I have different ideas of what a sequel would be. We could go in all different directions.
APP: That is so true, and I can’t wait to see where you will take this story as well as many other writing projects to come. Thank you so much for talking to me and sharing this beautiful book with all of us! And now for a giveaway! Donna has generously agreed to give away a copy of her award winning book to one lucky MUF reader. US entries only please!