Saturday, July 10, 2021


Healer of the Water Monster
Written by Brian Young (Navajo)
Illustrated by Shonto Begay (Navajo)
Published in 2021
Publisher: Heartdrum (HarperCollins)
Reviewer: Debbie Reese
Review Status: Highly Recommended


I am delighted to recommend Brian Young's Healer of the Water Monster. Below, I will share some of the reasons why I think you should have this book on your school library shelf, and in your classroom library, and in your home library. If there's a Little Free Library in your neighborhood, get one for it, too! And if you're on a road trip, get a copy of the audio version. It is terrific! To start, let's look at the book description:

When Nathan goes to visit his grandma, Nali, at her mobile summer home on the Navajo reservation, he knows he’s in for a pretty uneventful summer, with no electricity or cell service. Still, he loves spending time with Nali and with his uncle Jet, though it’s clear when Jet arrives that he brings his problems with him.

One night, while lost in the nearby desert, Nathan finds someone extraordinary: a Holy Being from the Navajo Creation Story—a Water Monster—in need of help.

Now Nathan must summon all his courage to save his new friend. With the help of other Navajo Holy Beings, Nathan is determined to save the Water Monster, and to support Uncle Jet in healing from his own pain.

Now, here are some of the reasons I highly recommend Healer of the Water Monster:


Brian Young is Diné (Navajo). Whether you're an adult or child--but especially if you are a teacher--I suggest you begin with the Author's Note that starts on page 352. People who have attended my workshops or lectures know that I am deeply committed to Native writers. When teachers use their books in the classroom, they can say something like "We're going to start reading Healer of the Water Monster by Brian Young. Brian is Diné." That last sentence in my scenario is what I want you to look closely at! Specifically, think about the word "is" in "Brian is Diné." A three-word sentence, with a powerful two-letter word. Those two letters push against the thousands of times students have heard past tense references to Native people. It tells students that we are still here. 

A teacher could then pull up the website for the Navajo Nation and say "Here is the website for the Navajo Nation." Of course, that's another use of present tense verbs but it also tells students that we use technology--that our nations have websites! I smiled as I read the early passages of Healer of the Water Monster when Nathan is trying to use his cell phone at his grandmother's home. 

When we do workshops with teachers, we ask teachers to become familiar with present-day life of the tribal nation in a given book. With his Author's Note, you learn that the Navajo people and their homelands have been exploited by the uranium industry, and that the mine in Healer of the Water Monster is an actual mine. The area of that mine remains radioactive, today. Brian's note also talks about coal mining and its devastation to Navajo homelands. 

Another dimension of Native life that Brian addresses is exploitation and misuse of Native stories. Some stories, he writes, are told during specific times. There are some beings within his own nation's spirituality that "cannot be replicated in drawings, writings, or films. Merely saying the names of certain Holy Beings outside of their ceremonial circumstance could diminish their healing abilities." He has more to say about that. It is a tremendous opportunity for teachers to think about respect of spiritualities different from their own. He knows of what he writes! That is what a tribally-specific voice can do that another one cannot. 

Indigenous Language

In spite of efforts to destroy who we are, our Native languages have persisted. There are revitalization efforts, everywhere, with elders leading the way in teaching our languages to our tribal members. When you read this book, you'll see Nathan's grandmother is teaching him their language. In real life and in this book, language revitalization is so exciting! In Healer of the Water Monster, this is what you'll see at the top of chapter one:

I love seeing Young using his language in that way! His book has thirty-three chapters. Each one opens with the Diné word on top and the English one beneath it. As you read through the book you'll see many Navajo words. Notice: none of them are in italics! Recently, the use of italics for non-English words is decreasing. That's a plus for all of us (to understand why this is an important shift in publishing, make time to watch Daniel Jose Older's video, Why We Don't Use Italics).

In the author's note for Healer of the Water Monster there's an excellent note about Young's thought process regarding a glossary of the words he uses in the book. It prompts readers everywhere to think about seemingly innocuous things, like glossaries. 

Young's use of Diné for chapter headings is terrific! I can see Diné language teachers--especially ones who have Navajo children in their classrooms--using this book to demonstrate that their language matters, and then of course, assigning the book to their students because the story itself is so good! 

The story

Calling Young's story "soooo good", Dr. Jennifer Denetdale (she's Navajo, too, and a professor at the University of New Mexico) went on to say:
It dawns on me that a marker of Indigenous fiction is how a writer centers the Indigenous/Diné world where the non-Indian worlds are peripheral and only appear at the edges, though the characters must grapple with what colonialism brings. 
She also said:
This book celebrates a Diné sensibility of a world radiant with living beings that most of us are not aware.
I often say that reviews by someone who is of the same tribal nation a book is about are the ones that matter, most of all. They know their tribal nation and its culture and history in ways that others won't know it. Dr. Denetdale's comment was on June 6, 2021 on her Facebook page (I am sharing it with her permission).  

I'll be thinking about what she said the next time I read Healer of the Water Monster. In what ways is the non-Indian world peripheral to the story Young has created? I definitely felt the radiance of a world that has living beings that some are not aware of... and I liked that radiance, very much! 

There are small passages that sparkle, too. I noticed, for example, the exchange between Nathan and a water monster who asked Nathan to tell her about her river (p. 308):
"River?" Nathan was confused. There were so many rivers. 
"You might know it by the name the pale people forced upon it. The San Juan River," the water monster said. "But its original name, my name, is Yitoo Bi'aanii."
Across the country, Native peoples have their own names for rivers and mountains and, well, the land. In that relatively small way, Brian Young reminds us that we are the original peoples of these lands. To some readers, this may pass unnoticed, but to others, they'll feel an immense pride as they read passages like that one.

Closing Thoughts

I'm pleased that Healer of the Water Monster received starred reviews from mainstream review journals! Those stars mean librarians will purchase the books for their libraries. When you book talk it, consider drawing attention to the cover art. I am currently researching and writing a "Milestones" post that notes the first this-or-that in books by Native writers. I think this is the first book for middle grade readers that is written by a Navajo writer and illustrated by a Navajo artist. That artist is Shonto Begay. If you don't already do so, follow him on Facebook. There, he shares art from time to time. I am especially blown away by his Etch a Sketch art. 

Like I said earlier, I highly recommend Brian Young's book. Ask for it at your local library and bookstore. Visibility is of utmost importance, and books like this one deserve warm spotlights, everywhere.