Issaquah’s Donna Barba Higuera is living an author’s dream as the winner of the 2022 Newbery Medal for Children’s Literature
Donna Barba Higuera learned that she had won one of the most prestigious prizes in children’s literature during a rigged meeting on Zoom. The Issaquah author, vacationing in Hawaii in late January, pulled away from her family to join what she was told was a scheduled meeting with representatives from Barnes & Noble about virtual school visits. As she tuned in, she was surprised at how many people attended, including Arthur A. Levine, head of Levine Querido, the company that published her 2021 mid-level novel “The Last Cuentista.”
“I thought there were way too many people here for a Barnes & Noble meeting,” Higuera recalled, in a phone interview from his home later that week. “I didn’t know what it was until [Levine] stood up and said, “It’s the Newbery committee.” I’m just completely frozen. And then I doubled my ugly scream.
It was the kind of moment authors usually only dream of: receiving the Newbery Medal, an annual award from the American Library Association for the most distinguished children’s book of the year. The Newbery celebrates its 100and birthday; past winners have included classic children’s authors such as Madeleine L’Engle, EL Konigsburg, Neil Gaiman and Beverly Cleary. “It’s quite humbling to go back and look at previous winners and see the business I’m in,” said Higuera, for whom L’Engle Newbery winner “A Wrinkle in Time” was a favorite book when he was a child. “It’s quite moving.”
“The Last Cuentista,” Higuera’s third published children’s book (“cuentista” translates to “storyteller”), blends science fiction and folklore, inspired in part by stories she heard growing up. The main character, Petra, is a 12-year-old girl who moves to another planet after the destruction of Earth. But as she travels into the future, she takes something with her: stories she has heard from her grandmother, “gifts she can give to other children who are with her to try to help them to remember the Earth, and what it means to be Human.”
Long fascinated by the mythology of all cultures, Higuera wanted to emphasize Mexican folklore in this book (her paternal ancestry is Mexican). “It’s interesting because a lot of Mexican folklore is an oral tradition,” she said. “That’s something I wanted to focus on in the novel: how when grandparents, parents, our elders recite these stories to us, the stories all take on the flavor of the storyteller and who is telling them, and sometimes those stories are changed and altered.. This is an important theme in this story: Petra heard these stories from her grandmother, so she decides to make them her own.
Thaddeus Andracki, the Chicago school librarian who chaired the 15-member Newbery committee (made up of current and former librarians), described “The Last Cuentista” in a phone interview as “spectacular” and stands out among some 1 200 books submitted for the honor. He cited the “really strong themes” of the book…Donna did a great job of hammering out themes of community, survival, storytelling as a mechanism to save the world, and her “luxuriously fleshed out” characters and plot exciting.
“When you put it all together,” he said, “it really created an alchemy of something magical.”
For Higuera, who grew up in California but has lived in the Seattle area since 1995, writing has always been a chance to find magic — to leave your own world and go somewhere else, if only for a moment. As a book-loving and imaginative teenager, she dreamed of being a writer or designer, but her pragmatic father advocated something more stable for an adult career. That career turned out to be in the health sciences: Higuera is a Doctor of Optometry who practiced in the Eastside for 27 years.
“I love my other job,” she said. “I love my patients, my patients are my family. I have both of these hats that I wear and hope to continue to wear both.
Despite a busy life as an ophthalmologist and mother, writing has managed to find a place for itself. After taking online writing classes, Higuera started saving time: “I wrote outside of karate class, I wrote outside of ballet class, I wrote when I was waiting to pick them up. at school. It was sort of the genesis of when I started writing. Life was “a lot” back then, and writing gave him a moment to “escape and go somewhere else”.
Higuera’s first published book, in 2020, was the mid-level novel “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance”, about a girl who wants to be a Major League Baseball pitcher; it won numerous honors, including the Sid Fleischman Award for Humor. (The award is a source of amusement for Higuera, who says she thinks she’s funny “but my family assured me I’m not.”) She is also the author of the book images “El Cucuy is scared, too!” with illustrator Juliana Perdomo, and working on the mid-level novel “Alebrijes”, another mix of sci-fi and Mexican folklore.
Along the way, she’s found plenty of support from the Papercuts, a local writers’ group that also includes her husband, mid-level fiction writer Mark Maciejewski. The group meets for three hours each week — “right now we do a lot of Zoom meetings but we used to meet at Starbucks in Issaquah” — to read and critique each other’s work. “We’re just kind of this dysfunctional writer family,” Higuera said. “For a writer, getting reviews from other writers is priceless.”
As the news of the Newbery falls, life has been a bit of a whirlwind for Higuera: “A lot of ups and downs: one minute I’m crying, the next minute I’m laughing, the next minute just lying there saying: ‘I really need a nap.’ She remembers as a child seeing books with the shiny gold Newbury Medal sticker and thinking they must have something magical about them. “Now I think a child might see a sticker on my book “, she said. “It’s a weird feeling.”