Spiritual Storytelling with The Last Cuentista

For a book lover like me, one bedtime story often turned into two or three as I tucked my young children in. But I didn’t just read them books. I also told them stories about when they were babies, our families of origin, and our spiritual tradition. They loved to hear these personalized stories, which served as intangible links to themselves, their extended family, and their faith community.  

The importance of stories is a central theme in Donna Barba Higuera’s dystopian science fiction novel, The Last Cuentista. The book, which won the 2022 Newbery medal, begins as Petra Peña and her family board a ship to leave Earth and settle on a distant planet. Most passengers, including Petra, are put to sleep for the several hundred years of travel. But something goes terribly wrong. When Petra awakes, she is the only person with memories from before. As Earth’s last storyteller, she relies on the tales she heard growing up, and those stories help her and her friends escape the fanatical Collective’s colonization and make a new life for themselves on Sagan.

The Last Cuentista is a powerful story about storytelling, identity, adversity, moral values, and hope. Help older children (ages 10+) explore these spiritual themes with one or more of these book-related activities.

Who Am I? Petra dreams about stories.  Each time this happens, she learns something important about herself and her values. Recall together some of Petra’s dreams and related discoveries, and then ask one or more of these questions:

  • Have you ever dreamed a story that helped you see yourself better? If so, what did you learn about yourself?
  • What stories would you want to dream about when you are scared?
  • What stories would you want to dream about when you are sad?
  • What stories would tell you something interesting about yourself?
  • What stories would remind you who you are?

Stories for Change. Petra changes the endings of old stories or creates new stories to help others think differently about their situation. Invite children to think of a troubling issue, such as a personal conflict with a friend or a social concern like climate change or women’s rights. Encourage them to write and illustrate a story that offers a new perspective on this issue. Their story might provide encouragement, offer hope, or suggest specific ways to overcome adversity.

Building an Ethical Community. Voxy and Petra have a unique relationship. Although Voxy is a member of the Collective, he is interested in learning about Earth’s culture. Petra tells him stories that contrast free will with oppression and hope with fear so he will see that the Collective is unethical. Work with children to make a list of the positive values represented in Petra’s stories. Talk about the kind of ethical community those values would create. Then invite them to compare their own community with the one Petra wants in her new home. Ask: What values does our community share with Petra’s stories? How could we make our community more ethical?

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