After the Call: Something Magical

What did winning the Newbery Medal mean to me? It has taken some time to wrap my head around this question. The Last Cuentista won the Newbery Medal! I’ve texted my editor, Nick Thomas, a few times with, “We won the Newbery” and “Did that really happen?” just to help myself digest it all.

On a bigger scale, I don’t think I realize just yet what this means. But I’m beginning to see how it makes me feel. The Last Cuentista is a very personal book because it’s about what’s most important to me: the power of stories. In this book, so many of the stories I share are my own favorites or those from my own cultures’ folklore and mythology, drawn from American, European, and Mexican contexts. Some mentioned are the books or stories that have had the biggest impact on me as a reader, such as Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea or the tale of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl.

But on an even more personal level, so many of my own experiences and emotions are also those of my main character, Petra. The profound love of my grandmother and her stories, and the intense grief over her loss. The difficulties of trying to navigate two cultures. A shared love of all books, and my secret nod to science fiction. When I found out that this story, which is so close to my heart, would be published, I was terrified. I worried about how it would be received.

When I first held the book in my hands, I thought, Well, it’s too late now. People will know who you really are. They will all know what you would take with you if Earth were ending, and you had to choose the most important thing. That you love books and stories above all earthly possessions.

The Last Cuentista is twelve-year-old Petra’s story. Twelve is the age that many of us, including myself, feel most unsure of ourselves. I couldn’t help but go back to that place in my mind while writing this story. I felt all those same insecurities; the worries about whether others would like me or not. Would they make fun of me? Would they understand me?

To have this book not only be well received but win the Newbery Medal leaves me overwhelmed with emotion, because it means there are people who relate to Petra and, indirectly, me. There are others like me.

Higuera at twelve (left); as a young writer (right). Photos courtesy of Donna Barba Higuera.

It’s surreal to think that a child will see this book I created, with its golden Newbery sticker, and pick it up, hoping for something magical. But also, perhaps, it will give readers a safe place to escape. It is incredibly humbling to think of my book this way. But it’s the way I looked at past Newbery winners. And I hope that just as those books allowed me to, young readers can escape into a story — and journey along with Petra, and feel less alone.

But perhaps the biggest surprise I’m finding is something even more magical. This little book is connecting people. I have heard from so many who are sharing their experiences with The Last Cuentista. Book clubs are reading it. Parents are reading it with their children and sharing their feelings with one another. Teachers are reading it aloud and using it in classroom lessons and discussions. Kids who’ve already read it are telling teachers when they should pause for maximum tension and to avoid spoilers.

If I had to choose, the one thing that makes me happiest is that people of all ages, places, and cultures are connecting with one another over a book that speaks to what it means to be human and have empathy. Perhaps after traveling with Petra on her journey, readers will also share their own stories.

From the May/June 2022 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Newbery Centennial.

Donna Barba Higuera

Donna Barba Higuera won the 2022 Newbery Medal and the 2022 Pura Belpré Author Award for The Last Cuentista; she also won a 2021 Pura Belpré Honor for children’s narrative for Lupe Wong Won’t Dance (both Levine Querido). She has a picture book forthcoming from Abrams in 2023.

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