By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
A few years ago, Donna Barba Higuera’s youngest daughter came home from middle school, upset about having to square dance in physical education.
Her daughter’s horror at having to dance—and with a boy, no less—sparked the idea for Lupe Wong, a young Chinacan/Mexinese (Chinese and Mexican) girl Barba Higuera describes as a stubborn troublemaker and social justice warrior. She’s also the title character in the Issaquah resident’s 2020 debut middle grade novel, “Lupe Wong Won’t Dance” (Levine Querido, 2020). The book went on to receive a number of awards and honors, including the Pura Belpré Honor Award and the Sid Fleischman Humor Award.
At the end of January, Barba Higuera’s latest book, “The Last Cuentista” (Levine Querido, 2021), the story of a 12-year-old girl who is an aspiring storyteller in a world hundreds of years in the future when stories of humanity’s past are being erased, received the Newberry Medal and Pura Belpré Award.
Barba Higuera received news of both honors within the span of one weekend. The annual awards are sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA).
According to the ALA website, the Newberry Medal is awarded “to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” The Pura Belpré Award—co-sponsored by the Young Adult Library Services Association, and ALA affiliate, REFORMA—is presented to “a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.”
Since the announcement, Barba Higuera’s life has turned into a hurricane of happy chaos. Within a week, hard copies of “The Last Cuentista” began selling out everywhere, from Barnes & Noble to Amazon—a good problem to have, she admits. She’s also received more interview requests than she can handle without assistance.
When asked if she imagined receiving these awards when she began writing, Barba Higuera, who still works as an optometrist in Bellevue (although she’s going to start cutting back on her hours as her writing career becomes more demanding), said, “I don’t think any writers imagine any awards at all,” pointing out that there are also amazing books that haven’t received any recognition.
Barba Higuera, who has also published a children’s picture book called “El Cucuy is Scared Too!” (Harry N. Abrams, 2021), has always been a writer.
Before she began writing seriously, she wrote short stories, often with alternative versions of things she saw as mysterious. She started her first novel in 2011, after taking online writing classes at Bellevue College. For about seven years, she wrote several “practice” novels before getting an agent and writing “Lupe.”
Although she’s been in Washington since 1995—living in Kent before moving to Issaquah about 18 years ago—Barba Higuera, who is half Mexican American and half white, grew up in Taft, California. Back then, it was a predominantly white community and throughout her childhood, there was only one other Latino boy in town. Despite their small number having just one other person with a similar cultural background helped.
Being biracial, she understands how it feels to be considered by others as “not enough” of either race. This is something her two daughters—one of whom was adopted from China, and the other is half Chinese American on her father’s side—have had to navigate as well.
Barba Higuera works hard to give kids what she didn’t have growing up—representation. But she tries not to be preachy in her writing. Instead, Barba Higuera likes to present situations that will have readers questioning how they would feel or react if they were in her characters’ shoes.
Whether it’s kids who haven’t seen their specific culture on the page, the ones who are navigating multiple cultures, or those who are not afraid to speak their minds and take on different battles, she wants her work to speak to readers. And one thing she wants them, and her daughters who are now 18 and 22, to understand is, “Be who you are and the right people will find you and be your friends.”
Samantha can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.