Interview with Donna Barba Higuera about THE LAST CUENTISTA

Kathie: Hi Donna, thank you so much for joining me at MG Book Village today to talk about your new book, The Last Cuentista, which was released yesterday by Levine Querido. Can you tell us a little bit about it, please?

Donna: This book is about a girl named Petra Peña who is leaving for a new planet with her scientist parents as a comet approaches threatening to destroy Earth. Petra wants nothing more than to be a storyteller like her grandmother. Just her luck, the one upside to the journey that will take hundreds of years, will be a download of information. Petra hopes she can possess all of Earth’s folklore, mythology, and stories in her mind by the time they arrive to the new planet. But along the way a sinister collective of those monitoring the passengers begins to “purge” adults and erase the memories of the remaining children in hopes of starting over with none of Earth’s past mistakes or history to hinder their new plan.

But during this 370-year journey, when all the other children are reprogrammed, Petra’s defective download makes her alone the hidden bringer of Earth’s now forbidden stories and her grandmother’s Mexican folklore to a changing humanity.

Kathie: This book is based on the Mexican folklore that your grandmother shared with you. Why do you think oral storytelling is so important and leaves such a strong impression on children?’

Donna: In the oral tradition of storytelling, these tales are normally told to us by someone we trust. A teacher, a parent, a grandparent…so there is an added layer of trust compared to what we may read in a book. The storyteller can impart parts of their own personality or life experience, so it has the element of something more personal.

I think of my own experience as a child and how important sensory detail is. I could see my grandmother’s facial expressions. She could add a layer of tension with a quick jump. She could add sadness or humor to her tales with one look. That was something I couldn’t always get with the written word. She might give me a cup of hot chocolate with cinnamon beforehand. I could taste and smell the story. To this day, I add cinnamon to coffee and hot chocolate and feel like I’m back by a fire and my grandmother’s knees crack as she settles in to tell me a story. I sense those feelings of humor, fear, tension and love I had in those moments.

Kathie: I really loved Petra’s loyalty, and the way she cared about those around her. What quality do you most admire in her and why?

Donna: Well, there are two, but because they intertwine in a way, can I count them as one? The first quality is her tenacity. There was a point in the book where I tried to imagine what I would have done if I’d been in Petra’s situation at that age. I would have crawled up into a ball and quit. But Petra feels so strongly about the stories she carries with her and her purpose that she doesn’t give up. But even when helping others poses roadblocks to her end goal, she still carries a layer of nurturing she’s learned from her parents and grandmother that she transfers to the other children.

Kathie: This book could fuel many fantastic discussions! I had so many questions running through my mind, like if we could start over as humans, how could we make things different, and how we can value art AND science as we move into the future? What do you hope a young reader will take away from your book?

Donna: I suppose I hope young readers take away concepts to ponder. I don’t know the answers to all the questions this book raises. But it isn’t meant to give the answers. I hope young readers will take away issues to contemplate and will have discussions with others. Maybe they will consider those topics together and make the world better place, one in which we work to be more appreciative of the arts and sciences.

Kathie: I’d love to know what items you would take with you if you were relocating to Sagan?

Donna: Well, I just moved. And this is no joke. Three quarters of the boxes were books. If relocating to Sagan, this would certainly not be an option. My obsession with books is partially what gave me the idea for that part of Petra’s story. I asked myself what I valued most. What would I take with me if I were leaving for another planet and could take very little? The concept of being able to download all the books and stories of Earth into my mind felt like the most priceless item I could imagine.

But one physical item? I’d take my dad’s old tobacco-infused pipe. Anyone who’s had a father who smoked a pipe will understand.

Kathie: Can you share an interesting tidbit about how this story changed over the course of editing?

Donna: This book started as a short story from a writing prompt. “Take a traditional fairy tale and make it sci-fi. I think I had a one-thousand-word limit. I used Princess and the Pea, and created a character who’d been placed in cryo for hundreds of years, but never slept. When she was removed, the world, people and culture had all disappeared, and she was not valued for the things she once was. The concept was both fascinating and horrifying. I wanted to develop it into a novel.

The first draft of The Last Cuentista was mainly plot-based. In rewrites and revisions, the character came to life. She shared my love of story, folklore and mythology. I decided if Petra was a girl like me, then she would surely bring the tales she loved most. Those told to her that she loved on Earth. At first, I didn’t go into detail with the stories. They were just ghostly versions of the original. My editor at Levine Querido, Nick Thomas, asked me to expand on these stories, and let Petra tell them the way she would in that moment. He was so right. Once we made those changes, the stories sprung to life with Petra as the storyteller.

Kathie: Is there any chance of a sequel to this book? I would love to know what happens next for Petra and her friends.

Donna: I hope so. I think of Petra and the other children all the time.

I had to know what happens to her in her life, so I recently wrote (just for myself) the end of her story. It was the most fulfilling ending to a story I’ve ever written. I read it to my husband and we both cried. Perhaps one day it will make it into a book.

But I’m also thinking of others in Petra’s universe. What happened to those left behind on Earth? Did anyone survive? If so, what is Earth like now? So perhaps I will write that next.

Kathie: Where can our readers go to find out more about you and your writing?

Donna: On my website or www.donnabarbahiguera.comThey can also find me on Twitter @dbhiguera & Instagram @donnabarbahiguera

Kathie: Thanks for taking some time to chat with me today, Donna, and all the best on your book’s release.

Donna: Kathie, thank you! You’ve asked some amazing questions that allowed me to ponder things about my book I hadn’t yet considered.

And thank you for helping to welcome The Last Cuentista and Petra into the world.

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.
Donna lives in Washington State with her family, three dogs and two frogs. Donna’s backyard is a haunted 19th century logging camp. (The haunted part may or may not be true—she makes stuff up.) She is a Critique-Group-Coordinator for SCBWI-Western Washington and teaches “The Hero’s Journey for Young Authors” to future writers.

Follow Donna on Twitter at @dbhiguera.

The Last Cuentista is available now to purchase, and you can find it at your closest independent bookstore here:

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