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This year’s Newbery medal went to the story of Petra Peña, a 12 year old girl who turns to be the only person who can remember the Earth after it is destroyed by a comet. Graphic: The Last Cuentista

Latina author Donna Barba Higuera wins top U.S. children’s book award

The Last Cuentista, Donna Barba Higuera's second novel, blends Mexican folklore with science fiction.

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It's 2061. A comet is about to destroy planet Earth and only a handful of politicians, scientists and other privileged citizens will be able to escape the disaster by embarking on a space journey that will force them to be tamed for hundreds of years. Among them is Petra Peña, a 12-year-old girl, daughter of scientists, who will be the only one who remembers humanity when they land at their new destination. 

Although it may seem so, this is not the script of the second saga of Don't Look Up, the film that swept Netflix this Christmas, but the story told by the Californian writer of Mexican origin Donna Barba Higuera in The Last Cuentista. It's a children's novel that was just awarded the John Newbery Medal — the distinguished award given by the American Library Association (ALA) to the best children's book of the year. The award, named in honor of John Newbery, the 18th century English publisher who was one of the first to publish books exclusively for children, marks its 100th anniversary this year.

As the New York Times noted last Summer, "the best thing about The Last Cuentista is not the science fiction elements, but what it has to say about storytelling. Petra isn’t just a 12-year-old girl unwillingly thrust into a space-cult dystopia; she’s also a storyteller. On Earth, Petra’s grandmother (lovingly called Lita, for abuelita) told her Mexican folk tales, and Petra aspired to one day herself weave cuentos (stories) as masterfully. But when she wakes to dire circumstances, Petra realizes she must find her cuentista voice sooner than expected."

“I have pinched myself, squeezed my eyes super tight, and it’s all still real life! What a day! Taking a minute to digest over here,” said Higuera on learning of her win.

Donna grew up in central California surrounded by agricultural and oil fields. As a child, rather than dealing with the regular dust devils, she preferred spending recess squirreled away in the janitor’s closet with a good book. Her favorite hobbies were calling dial-a-story over and over again, and sneaking into a restricted cemetery to weave her own spooky tales using the crumbling headstones as inspiration. Donna's Young Adult and Middle Grade books feature characters drawn into creepy, situations, melding history, folklore, and or her own life experience into reinvented storylines. She still dreams in Spanglish.

The Last Cuentista is her second novel.

The first one, Lupe Wong Won't Dance, also published by independent publisher Levine Querido, tells the story of Lupe Wong, a Chinese-Mexican girl who is determined to be the first female pitcher in the Major Leagues. She’s also championed causes her whole young life. Some worthy…like expanding the options for race on school tests beyond just a few bubbles. And some not so much…like complaining to the BBC about the length between Doctor Who season.

Higuera was also proclaimed winner of the Pura Belpré Award, the award given each year by the ALA to honor Latino writers and artists whose works "best portray, affirm and celebrate the Latino cultural experience." 
The other winner was illustrator Raúl González for the humorous picture book "Vamos! Let's cross the bridge." In the young adult category, author Raquel Vasquez Gilliland won for her novel How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe.

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