#vted Reads: The Last Cuentista


Lovely listeners, welcome back. I’m Jeanie Phillips, and on this episode, I get to talk about “The Last Cuentista”, a book by Donna Barba Higuera.

It’s a fantastic middle grades book that touches on the tension between technology and organic life, duty and desire, along with what we know about identity — and how we know it.

It’s also a book that asks us questions, like: how are you keeping the young people in your life plugged in and growing? And: Do you know the stories they tell about themselves? And most importantly, do you know how to help them tell those stories?

My guest today is Ornella Matta Figueroa, who works to support storytellers out of trauma, with Safeart, out of Chelsea, Vermont. She’s also part of the Vermont Education Coalition.

This is Vermont Ed Reads, a show about books, by, for and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Philips and welcome to #vted Reads, we’re here to talk books, for educators, by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Ornella Matta-Figueroa. And we’ll be talking about The Last Cuentista by Donna Barba Higuera. Thank you so much for joining me Ornella. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ornella: Thank you so much for having me. My name is Ornella Matta, and I’m coming to you from the Vermont Education Coalition, also co-director of Safeart, which is a nonprofit based out of Chelsea. We address trauma and communities to creative expression and storytelling.

Jeanie: I can’t think of anybody more perfect than to talk about this book, The Last Cuentista. But before we get to this one, what are you reading? Right now, Ornella?

Ornella: Right now, I’m revisiting bell hooks Teaching to Transgress, and seeing it with these eyes that have gone through the pandemic and have lived the last few years is a totally different experience. And trying to figure out how do we create liberatory classroom? So that’s my work of the moment.

Jeanie: We can always learn more from bell hooks I find every time I read her, I have a new full body learning experience.

Ornella: Same. Absolutely.

Jeanie: Well, let’s it’s tempting as it would be to talk about bell hooks right now let’s, let’s come back to The Last Cuentista, which is a book that starts the very beginning of this book, we know that the world as we know it is ending, a comet is going to strike Planet Earth in the year is like 2060 something and I wondered if you wanted to just give our listeners a little snapshot of who our main character is and what’s happening in her life.

Ornella: So, how old is Petra?

Jeanie: I think she is like 13.

Ornella: She 13 or 14 years old?

Jeanie: I think she’s on the cusp. She’s like 13?

Ornella: Yes. So, we have Petra, and the book opens up with storytelling and this very moving goodbye between Petra and her grandmother. And there is a lot of you know,  anticipation of what is going to happen next? What is it that we have to do? We start and see the relationship between Petra and her family, and we start to understand the earth. It is a little bit, you know, prophetic almost in a sense of, ooh, “A lot of this introduction sounds a lot like the worsening of the earth today.” And yeah, so the main character is Petra. And we meet family. In the beginning of the story, I would, I would say that.

Jeanie: And Lita, her grandmother is a storyteller. And, and Petra aspires to be like her when she grows up.

Ornella: A lot of inner conflicts we’re seeing between the family, what the who Petra wants to be versus who her family wants her to be? While all of this chaos is happening, and they’re trying, you know, they’ve been selected. And there’s also this new one, so who gets to live and who gets to die?

Jeanie: More about the selected – what are they selected to do? Petra and her family.

Ornella: Selected to be leaving Earth and one of these shuttles, that’s supposed to be, you know, going to repopulate or, you know, populate a different planet. After being increased thesis and like, all this kind of technology. It’s definitely a sci fi novel.

Jeanie: Yeah, I would call it speculative fiction. Right? It’s got this sci fi fantasy more than fantasy and this world is ending.

Ornella: Dystopian edge to it a little bit, too.

Jeanie: Did you say Dystopian Edge? Yeah.

Ornella: Yeah. For me, it has a little bit of that Dystopian Edge. Yes.

Jeanie: But what’s unique about is it’s so rooted in the traditional storytelling of her family, the quaint those her grandmother Lita shares with her it’s so rooted in sort of ancestral wisdom for lack of a better word. So, it’s got this like futuristic and this past.

Ornella: And something I noticed with that, the values that reinforce are all really beautiful values. Even in the edges are so a way in which Petra’s retelling of the story is even like, in a healthier context, that her grandmother, as we hear her interpretations, and how she’s kind of like in the future in the story, frames the context of what’s happening to the people she then storytellers to is, like, with kindness and the priority of like, you know, those VA hosts and everybody went to the VA feels to ask for advice. And there’s this way in which service and compassion and gratitude is kind of like a framework in how the storytelling is shared, or like the morals underneath the storytelling.

Jeanie: I love that I hadn’t thought about it in that way. Because those stories operate on so many layers and it starts with just a new said before we started recording the whole book is Petra grieving, in gentle and not so gentle ways the whole book is grieving, for Lita, who’s being left behind for this planet, this place that she loves, and for humanity, as she knows, it’s going to have all of it. And so, there’s a way in which part of her grieving is to hold on to the stories part of her way of mourning, Lita is to hold on to the stories and to want to be like her. And her grandmother gives her some really good, great advice, I thought, she says, you have to make your stories your own. And I was struck by this concept of stories changing over time and about how we use the wisdom of folktales and sort of our family stories and the stories from our backgrounds, and how we adapt them for a modern world or for a changing world.

Ornella: When I think about stories here is so interesting because something I’ve noticed very recently is that if we don’t have the story to make ourselves good as a human beings, based on the choices that we make, we don’t there’s no way in which stories that we’re even told about ourselves, that we tell people really shapes how we reflect, and mirror and observe ourselves. And, yes, there’s so much beauty in this book and how its honor’s the ancestry, and also allows for the creativity, to give the community what it needs, for their community to be healthy, and to be able to see themselves or whatever wholeness they need to see.

Jeanie: You’re really inspiring me Ornella to think about how, when I work with schools, when we at the Tarrant Institute work with schools, we often encourage them to start the year with identity with questions of who am I and who do I want to become? And this book holds all of that, who am I? Who are my people? What are my passions? And what are the values of my upbringing? And who do I want to be in the world? And how does that help me be the person I want to be in the world?

Ornella: Absolutely, I see that in Petra. She’s such a powerful leading character, and in the ways in which she really perceives and views her world with such curiosity and kindness and such honesty with where she is and what’s happening in front of her. And there’s this just like sincere vulnerability and the ways that she’s interacting with what’s happening, a way in which it keeps her alive. It keeps her hopeful. It keeps her working towards like, the less of this move me ahead, right, like that kind of feeling in which there’s something behind her moving her ahead.

Jeanie: Well, in that, that strength comes with a real vulnerability, and I’m thinking particularly about a physical vulnerability. Because as Petra and her family are boarding the Pleiades Corporation ship, we find out that she has a disability with her vision. So, she doesn’t see very well. And so, her family, she has clearly adapted to this disability and to making it invisible to others. She uses certain strategies about how she navigates the world so that people don’t notice that she doesn’t really have wide-angle vision, right? And her family’s like holding on to her and they’re trying to hide it because there’s a sense that she won’t be able to board that they won’t take her if she’s and I’m using air quotes here, listeners if she’s defective. And recently it brought eugenics to mind.

Ornella: Oh, yes. You know, many actors, so many agents have gotten the story about, like, who are we and who do we want to be as a community? And what is the difference between we all choose, and we are all the same? And it is so beautiful, how in this world beautiful and terrifying and striking, and how it plays out in the story. Yeah, you know, they are able to hide her ability or, you know, they are able to, and even she becomes so valuable, that even when it’s discovered her skills are indispensable. There’s nothing, you know, it doesn’t matter anymore at that point.

Jeanie: When there’s a moral there, there’s a theme there about her value as a person and she would have been left on earth to die if they had discovered that she couldn’t see because they consider that as like weakening the gene pool, which is like directly the language of eugenics and the Holocaust, right. I wonder about that as an opening to start talking about eugenics in classrooms. And I think it’s a really tricky subject to navigate about how to discuss it, how to bring it forward. And I’m thinking about the legislature moving towards doing some truth and reconciliation, owning the story of eugenics in Vermont a little bit. And I don’t know, in your work with the ethnic studies coalition, how does that land for you, is this book an opportunity to sort of talk a little bit about our history in Vermont?

Ornella: I think any opportunity is an opportunity to talk about it right? I think that there’s a line here that we could go there as part of what we can discuss when talking about this book, and it is a beginning opportunity, it’s an opportunity to talk about our history and be honest and real about what has happened. And also observe the ways in which it affects us still today. Like, what are the inner shames and the inner pieces and our lack of being able to connect with ourselves because of our ancestry? And how many families in Vermont are still hiding? And not being honest about their ancestry? Or even French-Canadian ancestry? Yeah.

Jeanie: Or its might not even be not being honest, but have lost that connection because of the need for assimilation? Because they needed to assimilate to survive, I wonder if that reached out to? Could you say that again?

Ornella: There may be a delay. I was saying that my experience in Puerto Rico is also similar. Like it’s part of the history of so many different places. This genetic “cleansing”, you know, it’s a part of a lot of different histories.

Jeanie: Right in Vermont, the movement was about building a better Vermonter. And sterilization was about deciding who was unworthy to pass on their genes. And we’re not the only ones that have that story. I think you’re saying, and although it’s not about sterilization, this selection of who gets to board, this ship was very much about whose genes do we want to send into the future? And who’s who, who are we sacrificing?

Ornella: And what they do with the genetics later on? It’s also super interesting in this story.

Jeanie: Oh, well, let’s talk a little bit because I think for that we need, you know, the United States government at the time is making these decisions. But there’s this movement afoot, that infiltrates called the collective. Let’s talk about a collective. So, before they leave the US, Petra, the collective is often on the news, it’s sort of fringy. I think I got the impression that it was a little bit fringy. And Petra’s father says about the collective that it sounds like what they want is good, they talk about equality. And he says, Yeah that sounds good. It’s how they’re going to get there. That’s problematic. And so, he says, equality is good. But equality and sameness are two different things. Sometimes those who say things without really contemplating what it truly means that dogma runs a thin line. And so, the collective really has this, like, this stance, this ideological stance that we have to be the same in order to be equal. And they’re willing to do a lot.

Ornella: You know, they’re willing, and it was, I didn’t see them as a fringe, I saw them from the perspective of a progressive family. So, I didn’t see them as fringe as much as I saw them. Back to buy one of the billionaires in the story, which is how the collective ends up on one of the ships, right, like there’s a way in which capitalism and money also has a huge piece and what’s happening there with the collective. I’m trying to figure out where to go next with that, because sameness is such a big thing. It’s like such a big conversation.

Jeanie: The whole book is about, I mean, we’re going to look at it from lots of different ways, but it’s about identity and being yourself or being who people want you to be. And the collective wants people to be a certain way. From their names, their whole identities, they want people to be same.

Ornella: Because we’re all the same. And if we are all choosing to be the same, then there won’t be any conflict. They see the differences as the foundation for conflict, or the focus on the differences as the foundation for conflict. And, you know, the book spans a few 100 years. So, there’s also a lot that happens, which is something I always think about. When I frame 200 years I always joke and tell my kids when I’m homeschooling you imagine if Hamilton talked about it, and we’re fighting, we’re talking about it right now, you know? So, Hamilton did it. And now we’re talking about it in the Supreme Court, you know, and I go back again, and I was like, oh, let’s talk about Jesus and the Council of Nicaea over a year, and how many years that took after Jesus died, before he was declared the Son of God. And then we have so there’s like this huge number of years. And when we meet the collective at the beginning of the story, and where we see the collective later on. And what it started, is not what ends up on the other side, either.

Jeanie: Right? Well, well, Petra and the other children and families who were selected to, to populate this new world are sleeping in stasis. Another group of people infiltrated by the collective are many of them of the collective are caretaking them and having and giving birth and having families on the ship to get them there. So that they can all populate this new world. And as they’re on this ship floating in space, trying to reach this planet called Sagan, they’re reproducing, and they don’t have any natural sunlight. So, their skin is really pale. They’re like, they’re like their genetics are changing, the way they look is different, say, say that, again.

Ornella: They’re changing their genetics or altering their genetics to be able to survive in a spaceship.

Jeanie: So, like, so there’s so much, so much so that when Petra, when they wake Petra up several 100 years later, they’re like, what is that she has freckles, and they call it a skin disease from Earth. And then one of the collective members says, we’re not supposed to talk about Earth, right? Like it doesn’t exist, because they’re erasing their own history. They think erasing history will solve their problems. And so, there’s like all these layers of how much they’ve changed and become different just from being on this ship. With this ideology that they’re following.

Ornella: Yes, because too, they believe that if they study history, it will only fuel their observation of difference. And those differences are what caused conflict.

Jeanie: In their opinion, not yours, Ornella.

Ornella: No, no, no, not, in my own opinion. Thank you for clarifying that. I’m the complete opposite. I’m like, Hey, how could we have none of the up you? How do you figure out and connect to your own purpose? If you follow your own inner guidance? Yeah, and I’m the complete opposite of that is interesting, how it echoes a lot of the current dualities in binaries, right, like it’s one of those ways in which our society oversimplifies the complexity of creating community. And what it takes for us to be socially connected in difference.

Jeanie: It what you just said reminds me and this thing about history in the book reminded me of that almost cliche, those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. I’m sure I didn’t get that quite right. But it makes me think about this current argument in our society about the notion that we can’t teach the real history because it will make us proud of being American or right versus this other. Other people, including myself, would view that like, we have to grapple with our mistakes so that we don’t keep making them that we can both we can hold, and we must hold the pain and the mistakes of our past in order to get to become the people we want to become.

Ornella: Absolutely. What that evokes for me, as you’re speaking is shamelessness and how shame is socially constructed. So, it can only be socially deconstructed. So, there’s no way in which for us to be able to sit with our mistakes or the things you know we need to like to be in this face of this is not everything I am I am valuable. This is only a part of my history. This is not defined everything I will do in the future. Richer, you know, and how do we reconcile that we need to be way kinder to one another and to ourselves, I would say just to start.

Jeanie: Right and that shame only dissipates when we let the light in. And in order to let the light in, we need to tell the truth, we need to because otherwise it just sits their investors, right? We need to ask forgiveness, we need to like, own what happened and tell the truth about it. And when we don’t when we what’s the word I’m looking for? When we clean up our history? Right, when we sanitize it, that shame still exists, because we’re not telling the truth. Whether that’s about genocide, or eugenics, or racism, or the entire all of the complicated truths of our history.

Ornella: Yeah, and we need to figure out what’s enough, right, like, there’s a point in which we need to be self-accountable, we need to tell the truth about the many, many histories and the many layers of oppression that we what’s the word I’m looking for? That we’ve imposed on one another, that especially colonial folks, you know, we’ve, there’s a way in which we really impose a lot of aggression in this column reality. And as I see it, it’s really hard to take responsibility, when there’s no clarity around what that’s going to, like, you know, what that’s going to do what that’s going to be for people. There’s a way and a story in which is perceived as never enough. And then there’s so way and a story in which it in which you can heal, right, there’s like, and then there’s a way in a story, in which we create and construct a whole new future. And we can look at the history while also building something else. Yeah.

Jeanie: Yeah. And so, the collective, the collective wants to build something new without learning from history by just flushing history down the toilet. But there’s also a way that the collective is approaching the individuals, especially those in stasis, those young people and their families that are being transported to populate this new world. And so, Petra’s family, her father and her mother, both scientists, and there’s a flashback in the book that I just loved, where Petra and her father out hunting for rocks together and they were looking for Jasper had to look up what Jasper was, it’s a kind of rock. And his father says, as they’re looking for the Jasper, the rock will tell us who it is not the other way around. And he goes on to talk about how each piece of Jasper has its own spirit, and that those differences make things beautiful. Some of the Jasper is like yellowish or amber with a red stripe and some is greyish and there are all these different shades and colors. And that theme becomes really central to the book, especially when I realized that Petra comes from a Latin word, which means rock. And so, in a way, it’s also about Petra, just like her grandmother says, The Rock will tell you know who you are, it’s not for other people to tell you who you are. And those other people telling Petra who she is, is happening within her family and then also with the collective.

Ornella: And there’s something really beautiful about how Petra stays Petra. And one of the many possibilities is because Petra insists on what she wants to the very moment you know that she’s put in cryostasis, or whatever it is. She insists on the fact that she wants to be a storyteller, and she tells everyone and makes it, so this becomes a priority when it hadn’t been to anyone um, the world is ending. And she’s walking into this room still saying, this is what I want you to do. And it kept her alive like it kept for herself all the way through. That’s one of the many possibilities.

Jeanie: Well and Petra’s mother wants her to be a botanist. Right,  a scientist like herself. And Petra keeps insisting she wants to be a storyteller. But there’s also as Petra is waking up from stasis. Wait, the the members of the collective are waking her up. We’re going to talk about this in a minute, this cog that she has inserted in her spine in her brain keeps repeating the same thing. “My name is Ada one. I’m here to serve the collective. I’m a specialist in rocks and plants” or something like that. I’m not quite getting it right. But as, she’s hearing it, she keeps repeating it. My name is Petra Pena, right. Like I come from I left Earth in 2061. You know, and like she keeps reclaiming her identity even as this technology is trying to erase it. It’s a real powerful act of resistance.

Ornella: Oh, yes. And that, you know, that scene with the library in our mind.

Jeanie: Let’s, let’s talk about Ben, and the library in her mind.

Ornella: Oh, my gosh, Ben. What can we say about him?

Jeanie: Well, his real job right is caretaker of these young people. His job is to keep them alive.

Ornella: While they’re plugged in, and they’re not there. They’re in these pods. The information that gets fed into their cogs.

Jeanie: And he knows Petra. He’s but he’s also so he’s caretaker right. He’s my favorite kind of person. He’s caretaker, but he’s also a librarian. He loves books. And he knows that Petra wants stories. And so, he selects all these stories for her and sort of illicitly illegally against orders. Make sure she has access to them. And I love there’s this whole scene in the book where there’s like the naming of the authors. Did you love this too? Where it’s like Louise Eldritch, and Toni Morrison and Kurt Vonnegut.

Ornella: Yeah, I thought it was love. It was really well done. It was really, really well done.

Jeanie: But then I love as a librarian, I don’t know if you know this, but I was a school librarian for a long time. As a librarian, I also just loved where Ben is like, Oh, well throw some RL Stein in there too. And I don’t know if you recognize that author. But RL Stein wrote all the Goosebumps books that I couldn’t keep on the shelf when I was a school librarian. Like, we essentially, Ben was saying, you know, you need your silly books and your romance to those stories are worthwhile to.

Ornella: I love that. I thought it was so well done, it was really well done.

Jeanie: It would be if I were using this book with kids, I would want them to curate the list of stories and authors that they would think should be, you know, blasted into the future in somebody’s brain.

Ornella: Absolutely. And also, you know, a little bit of awareness, you know, of how kind of heavy the book is, for some young people with this too. Like I was thinking it’s like, okay, so I have two 11-year-olds and a 13-year-old. And I can see one of my 11-year-olds really doing this, well, my 13-year-old doing well, but maybe the other 11-year-old, not so much. When we’re looking at, you know, identifying what books they’re going to do in the future, you know, they would want to hold on to forever. And especially because the book is really so full of grief. That it’s, you know, it’s a little loaded.

Jeanie: Right, the world is ending. There’s loss, like real loss of entire civilization, but then also, and we are not going to spoil much of the book, but also people Petra is close to there’s a lot and there’s not much time or space, and there’s certainly no ceremony for grieving in the book. And so, it is there is a real heaviness to it.

Ornella: An active part because it’s very true to how grief surprises us. So, it’s very genuinely told us that way. If it’s very genuinely told, from that perspective, in which grief surprised as Petra, often throughout the story, and there’s all of these things happening, and then all of a sudden, we’re overwhelmed with grief. And there’s like this way that for the reader as well, the grief can come on fairly, suddenly out of nowhere, just because we’re living patriarchs experience to-

Jeanie: Charlie’s bark came on quite suddenly there too. And I think he had something to say about grief, my dog. So, I feel, I feel that, and I appreciate you naming that this book might need it’s really a middle-grade novel, but it might be upper middle grades 6-7-8, and not four or five, because there’s a lot of heavy talk of mortality, really, there’s a lot there. And it might require connecting with a school counselor, or someone who knows about trauma, and being aware of how you’re making space for students to explore that grief and the trauma that happens in the story.

Ornella: I think it depends on who’s in your classroom. Right? We know, you know, teachers know, their students, and who’s in your classroom? And what are the losses and the experiences that have happened right now, because we’re living in a pandemic reality. And there has been so much global collective loss, I notice that there’s a bit of this storytelling and this trend that’s very attractive to kids in that 13, 14, 15, 16 range, there’s a darkness to what they want to be consuming. They want the scary, they want the sad right now. And also, there’s, you know, slow is good. I wouldn’t rush through it; I would probably slow it down. So, it’s not like, it’s not as much of a binge read, as it is a paused and thoughtful pace.

Jeanie: Right, and Ornella. What I hear you saying, is that it I want what I wonder about what you’re saying is that kids are drawn to these books, because they need time to process what’s been happening. And in our rush to go to call it post pandemic, are we rushing them past the opportunity to process the grief and the loss, whether it’s the loss of social life, or the loss of a loss of innocence, that the world feels more dangerous right now? Or the loss of real loved ones? Who is the loss of connection, you know, being able to see family and friends and people who matter to you? So, there’s so much less that we haven’t I know, I’m not processing? And that I would love an opportunity to slow down and process with a text like this?

Ornella: Absolutely. And I think that young people, I think that they if we just take our lead from them, most of the time, they can tell us where to go next. Yeah.

Jeanie: Yeah. So, there’s also that I don’t want to paint this as a really sad book, though, because there’s also a lot of action and power, Petra is a very powerful character, both in how she resists the stripping of her identity, and also how she sorts of, without giving it away rallies and nurtures the identity of the other young people she ends up in, in a kind of community or family with as they’re headed towards Sagan. And so, I don’t want to look past just the sheer embodied strength of this rock of a character Petra.

Ornella: Petra uses storytelling SOA, to exactly like a “storyteller should”, right? Like, she’s such a storyteller. And she does it so well. Her vulnerability, and her seeing people for who they are, and really loving them. There’s such sincerity in the description of the characters. And I remember the moment in which she says, so far, I think we’ll all be good friends. I really liked them all. There’s a way in which she can see people and love them, and like who they are, and, and that’s so beautiful. And so, I don’t know, felt new to me. Because there’s such little judgement, involved in the way in which Petra interacts with other people.

Jeanie: She builds belonging, she builds, she does some healing, she does this nurturing with these stories, that’s really powerful. I agree. And sort of helps them reclaim their identity, which I think makes me really want to use this book at the start of the year with kids to talk about identity and what’s it means to create identity affirming spaces? And how do we take care of each other in ways that build this kind of belonging and, and how do we become the person we are instead of the person people are telling us we should be and, and so there are so many like layers of how she models that, and how this book models that that are really important. But there’s this other thing we have to talk about. Because I’m an educator, we got to talk about cogs. So, there’s this device, and whether the author use this device as a convenience, or what I think it would be really interesting to talk about in the classroom. So as these young people are entering their, their pods, they’re given cogs with knowledge. It’s a kind of education device, it’s this mechanistic thing that like shoots into there I imagine it’s like the back of their neck. So, I imagine it connecting to their spine. And it’s basically like they’re supposed to wake up with all this knowledge, right. And it like very much portrays education as like just like dumping stuff in brains. And we know that like learning doesn’t happen like that learning doesn’t happen by we can’t just give you a shot or put something in. And so, it both like bugged me. But I thought it’s a really great opportunity to have a discussion about could we really learn by cogs? How does learning happen, which feels like a really important conversation in a classroom or a really important way to get at some like brain science at some like what’s it means to create a learning.

Ornella: Absolutely, I thought so too. It’s interesting, because it was very useful. Very useful technology, if it would work, which people want it. I’d be curious to see what young people would say about this. Because their realities so much. It’s so different. It’s so full of tech. Yeah, that I wonder if they would opt for it. And then how much sleep would you need afterwards? You know, like, is it possible? Can you code or like, brain live the experiences? I bet there’s a science that could recreate it, but

Jeanie: Well, there’s this like sense of like, they learn all the knowledge. There are all these facts in these cogs, but they have to apply it in this real world. Like they have to go to Sagan and apply this knowledge, whatever it is, they all have different specialties. And like, is knowing and applying the same thing. I just think it get into some really interesting conversations about how we learn and what it looks like.

Ornella: Absolutely. And I imagined that when I heard it as something that both dump information and create an experiential experience, like practice of it, kind of like in The Matrix, that’s how life lived. So, I thought that the reason they were able to wake up and do it had because they’d been in this imaginal space, doing all of these things.

Jeanie: While they slept. Wow, they loved it.

Ornella: That dream learning if on lack of work, yeah, I wouldn’t have imagined that at the pouring of information, because then it wouldn’t have worked. The ways I envisioned that was as in like, Dream learning. Yes.

Jeanie: Well, and the thing that they don’t know, the parents don’t know, the kids don’t know, and that they haven’t consented to is that these very same cogs that are filling their brains with botany and, and geology, etc., are also removing their individuality.

Ornella: Brainwashing them? Absolutely Oh. So, think brain? That’s really what it was, was it? It was?

Jeanie: It takes me back to Ben, right. And one thing that I was struck by, you know, this, like removing of stories, we don’t need stories in history. And this, like brainwashing that you just referenced is this moment right now, where in states across the country, librarians and teachers and young people are standing up, and parents are standing up against the banning of books. And so, you know, there’s this other theme that’s very much linked to current events about who gets to stay, who gets to say what story survive, what stories we share, and the kind of power that happens when we say, when we, when we, when they when the collective wouldn’t be blood power. Decide some things go in the trash can and other things go in, in belong in our kids’ brains?

Ornella: Absolutely, this is one of those things that I feel is so dangerous about extremism, and pedagogy that’s not framed in real conversation, and dialogue, and good healthy confrontation and reflection. And you know, there is a way in which right now the absolutes are really making it so we’re not getting well-rounded education possible like we don’t have it’s like we it’s not possible based on some the standards set at the moment, Vermont’s in really good shape, but when we look at other places in the nation, it’s a very different story.

Jeanie: Listeners, if you could see Ornella’s body language right now, it’s spoken volumes. I wish they could see the way that you just visualized that there’s a like, can we talk a little bit about heavier we haven’t mentioned much but he’s Petra’s brother or younger brother. And he plays an important role in the book and as they’re boarding this play these corporations spaceship thing, that’s very complex. They’re allowed to bring they have like one set of clothes; they and they’re allowed to bring like one special thing. And Petra brings a necklace her grandmother gave her, but Javier brings a book, which even in 2060, she says it’s an actual book. And it’s rare, right? Because they tend to have these electronic books. And it’s a picture book by Yuri Morales called Dreamers. And maybe we could just draw some connections about why the author might have included this specific book as the book. Do you want to talk about you neither one of us has a copy of Dreamers, but we sort of know what it’s about? Do you want to talk a little bit about what it’s about and why it might be significant?

Ornella: Absolutely, yeah, Dreamers. It’s my understanding that it’s talking about immigrant families that came to the United States who achieved citizenship ships through the dreamer’s program, the dreamer’s legislature, and it is an immigrant story about coming to a new nation and making you know, it’s like the traditional American eating. Yeah, this American tale of starting over and being able to build a life in freedom and being able to have the choices to be who you are. And it is a bit of criticism, let’s take a little bit of the nostalgia because it’s also a little ironic. As an immigrant boy, I’m not an immigrant, because I’m Puerto Rican. But as a person who was born in a different place, who’s also had to figure out how to fit in the United States. I also know the illusion of this American dream. So, there’s like that those two, like the irony of it being the book he brings, while it also being very limited to admit it legitimately a very valuable and important story, while it also having both the value for it for heavier and another very sweet character that we have later on named Foxy. For what look to me different reasons. Foxy with this whole what Earth mothers used to have and raised their own babies, right, 300 years later.

Jeanie: And seized on the spaceship, right. So, he hasn’t had a mother. He’s born in this like, realm of sameness in the collective and born on the spaceships. So, he’s like, shocked at the relationships in this book.

Ornella: Yeah, for what it means to have a mother to have a family. Yeah.

Jeanie: For me, this book evokes something else a, I did a podcast episode a while back with a friend Amy Randy Stinson on the book The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, are you familiar? And Ebony Elizabeth Thomas talked about how books about black and brown young people are usually about struggle and about history and not about the fantastic or they’re not often the heroes of their future stories, right. And it’s really limiting. And so, in a way this book dreamers also evokes this idea of like, putting black and brown young people in the center of the story about the future, and not just the past, and, and giving Petra all this power, and not just making her a victim.

Ornella: I love it, I think it’s a beautiful way to look at it. Thank you for sharing it. Yeah, I’m also, I haven’t gotten all the way through the back fantastic yet. But I am getting there. And really thinking about it, as I am, you know, looking at different books, and reflecting on my own childhood literature and seeing the ways in which these stories, that the ways in which we story ourselves really matter. And we have when we have these stories of powerful young people boldly living, even though struggle, we are able to reflect that back into the world. And I love the idea. And I see it in my own children that if it doesn’t exist, they write it. And I this is, which I know everybody else have discussed this in the book is this fanfiction, this ability to like, share and these writing communities? And yeah, it’s part of what makes this book so special is the ways in which I can see myself as a Hispanic girl living in the world, you know, and how many of those books that I have growing up? Not very many.

Jeanie: Yeah, that’s really important. And I feel like you just gave me the enduring understanding for the unit about this book. And it is and the identity unit about this that engages this book and maybe some other stories too. And that enduring understanding what you said, I made, I declared as the enduring understanding for this lesson. Right now, proclaim the ways in which we story ourselves matters. Oh, yeah. And what a better enduring understanding for young people. Your story and the way you tell it matters. And then you also led me to what was the second thought I had about this other oh, another lesson or extension activity was writing, you know, the book, the book ends, we’re not going to give anything away on Sagan as there it’s like a new beginning. And I can imagine young people writing fanfiction about what happens next.

Ornella: What happens next? Absolutely.

Jeanie: There’s such a great opportunity there. Yeah.

Ornella: Oh, another piece of that is the role of the educator in it. And I’m helping students see themselves in complexity and have complexity be okay.

Jeanie: That’s beautiful.

Ornella: They’re so way as educators and as caregivers and as teachers in the world, that we help students do that, and that when we allow for this complexity, and they’re able to be good, they’re able, you know, whatever good is to them, they’re able to be good in whatever context that is.

Jeanie: We all want to be valued. And we all want to do our piece. We all want to have impact right in the world. And so being able to have strengths-based approach to our stories helps us do that.

Ornella: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeanie: What other books would you recommend you have the three middle grades young people, three young adolescents in your life? You’re a reader. What other books would you recommend for middle grades? Learners and readers and the people who love them.

Ornella: Oh, there are so many for the people who love them. I recently read Hunt, Gather, Parent , which I thought was very, very just connecting for me, in my interest, giving different ways of viewing parenthood, and viewing our relationship with young people that we think are the little ones what can we what have the little ones been reading lately? You read this let me look. I just finished The Actual Star which I thought was also incredible. Definitely not for middle grades. But it is a beautiful book by Monica Byrne. Emergent Strategy for the grownups. Also, Atlas of the Heart, which I also finished over the last few. For shame work, you are your best thing. It is a compilation of essays about shame from Tirana Burke, and also curated by Brene Brown, with Tirana Burke. Trying to think about what the little ones have been reading.

Jeanie: I just love that you call your children the little ones.

Ornella: Not so little anymore. I mean thanks. I don’t know why I can’t think of any of the books I’ve been reading. I’m looking here have they been reading? And it’s okay. Yeah. Right now, they’ve been reading the Mysterious Benedict Society.

Jeanie: Oh, my son loved those books.

Ornella: Yeah, so they’ve been reading that. And I think under Kindle they’ve been reading. They’re like into this Graceling series.

Jeanie: Oh, those are intense. Yeah. They like their fantasy, don’t they?

Ornella: Yeah, no, they really do. Right now, we’re doing the roaring 20s. So, there is some talk, some talk about which books we’re going to do for the roaring 20s. We’ll see.

Jeanie: Well, to be continued, we’ll have to hear more. Thank you. So, thank you so much for bringing your perspective and your experience and your wisdom to this discussion about this book The Last Cuentista, which I loved so much. It’s so lovely to tell you.

Ornella: Thanks for inviting me here. Thank you for sharing your thoughts too. Have a blessed happy season.

Jeanie: It’s a pleasure. I’m Jeanie Phillips and this has been an episode of #vtedReads talking about what Vermont educators and students are reading.  Thank you to Ornella Matta-Figueroa for appearing on the show and talking with me about The Last Cuentista. If you’re looking for a copy of The Last Cuentista, check your local library. Many thanks to Audrey for all of her behind the scenes work on the podcast. To find out more about #vtedReads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at vtededreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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