“Kids suggesting books for me to read,” said author Donna Barba Higuera about what she considers a delightful bonus to her many book events this year, after winning the Newbery Medal in January for her riveting novel “The Last Cuentista.” “It’s like we’re a community of readers, all talking about something we love.”
Such community is especially sweet since she didn’t have it as a kid. Growing up as a self-described “book nerd” and fan of the TV shows “Star Trek” and “The Twilight Zone,” Higuera didn’t know many like-minded youngsters in the small town of Taft in the Central Valley of California.
Luckily, a librarian, Mrs. Hughes, shared books that she thought Higuera might enjoy, including “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. Now a science fiction classic, the novel won the Newbery Medal in 1963.
“The Last Cuentista,” too, is science fiction. The book is set in a fraught distant future and follows a young storyteller who is the only person who remembers Earth’s old stories. It is laced with the folklore and myths that are part of Higuera’s Mexican heritage on her father’s side.
Despite her busy schedule, Higuera made time this year to read and chat about stories with her husband, Mark Maciejewski, who also writes for young people. And a few weeks ago when she finished writing a new science fiction novel (which will probably come out next fall), she rewarded herself by reading a lot of books from a big stack of 2022 titles.
Five favorite books of 2022
In a wide-ranging phone conversation from her home in Poulsbo, Washington, Higuera shared her five favorite middle-grade books for 2022 with KidsPost.
Said Higuera: “I chose books that gave me goose bumps or made me cry or took me on an adventure to discover a culture or place I was unfamiliar with.”
In “Aviva vs. the Dybbuk” (ages 8 to 12), Mari Lowe immerses readers in the Orthodox Jewish community of 11-year-old Aviva Jacobs. “She is dealing with the death of her father and her mother’s depression — and then there’s a wandering spirit or dybbuk that is ornery and disruptive,” said Higuera. “This novel is heartfelt and mysterious.”
A memorable first line — “I HAVE TO CUT OFF Pesah’s finger today” — pulled Higuera immediately into the historical fantasy “Black Bird, Blue Road” (ages 8 to 12) by Sofiya Pasternack. To save her twin brother, who has leprosy, 12-year-old Ziva runs away with him, with the angel of death in swift pursuit. This book explores “powerful themes of judging others based on what we’ve been told,” said Higuera, “versus making our own judgment based on our openness” to the experience of others.
She read “The Door of No Return” (ages 10 and older) straight through. Indeed, Higuera was “laughing and crying and so invested in Kofi and his family” in 19th-century West Africa that she was “thrilled to learn that this is the first” novel in verse in a planned trilogy by Kwame Alexander. She looks forward to the terrible twists and hopeful turns of the 11-year-old boy’s continuing journey. “This book should be on every child’s bookshelf,” she said.
Kids and adults often need reminders that “the world does not define us,” said Higuera. “We define ourselves.” In “The Last Mapmaker” (ages 8 to 12), quick-witted Sai tries to mask her troubled, lowly lineage by finagling an assistantship to the mapmaker in a Thai-inspired fantasy kingdom. This vivid, fast-paced adventure by Christina Soontornvat includes an expedition to unknown lands, a mutiny, dragons, and a brave protagonist yearning to chart her own destiny. (The book was also a KidsPost Summer Book Club selection.)
“Kelly Barnhill is a master storyteller,” said Higuera about the author of her last choice. “The Ogress and the Orphans” (ages 10 and older) is an “allegory about the power of kindness, community, and books in a village [that is] crumbling from deception and the destruction of its libraries.” This is a timely story with an important message for today’s world.
How about 2023? Higuera is eager for two forthcoming novels: “Control Freaks” (ages 8 to 12) by J.E. Thomas, about a STEM-savvy boy who aims to be a great inventor, and “Eagle Drums” (ages 8 to 12) by Nasugraq Rainey Hopson, about a young Iñupiaq hunter who meets up with fierce eagle gods.
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