By AJ Eversole
Today we get to hear from Brian Young, author of American Indian Youth Literature Award Winning Healer of the Water Monster (Heartdrum, 2022). The sequel, Heroes of the Water Monster (Heartdrum, 2023) will be released May 23. From the promotional copy:
An unmissable companion to Healer of the Water Monster, which won the American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Award, this novel by Navajo author Brian Young tells the story of two contemporary young Navajo heroes–and one water monster–who must learn to work together to save their present world from the lasting hurts of their people’s past.
Edward feels ready to move in with his dad’s girlfriend and her son, Nathan. He might miss having his dad all to himself, but even if things in their new home are a little awkward, living with Nathan isn’t so bad. And Nathan is glad to have found a new guardian for Dew, the young water monster who has been Nathan’s responsibility for two years. Now that Nathan is starting to lose his childhood connection to the Holy Beings, Edward will be the one to take over as Dew’s next guardian.
But Edward has a lot to learn about taking care of a water monster. And fast. Because Dew’s big sister, the powerful Yitoo Bii’aanii, is coming up to Fourth World to instruct Dew after recovering in the Third World for one hundred and sixty years. She suspects a monstrous and enormous Enemy from the Hero Twins stories has returned and is stealing water from all of the Navajo Nation.
In their search for the Modern Enemy, Nathan, Edward, Dew, and Yitoo must confront their past and their inner selves if they are to save the Fourth World from a devastating disaster.
What is the heart of Heroes of the Water Monster?
Oh man, there is so much in Heroes of the Water Monster that I would consider to be the heart because I feel that all the plots, the characters, the themes, the storylines are intertwined. They all complicate as well as complement each other. But, I would have to say that the heart would have to be sibling-hood, specifically the relationship between Nathan and Edward.
Both Nathan and Edward are moving in with each other as their parents, Nathan’s mom Janet and Edward’s dad Ted, are becoming seriously romantically involved. Nathan and Edward are about as opposite as can be. Since Nathan is losing his childhood connection to the Holy Beings, he has to pass on his guardian duties of Dew, the water monster that hatched in his paternal grandmother’s cornfield two years prior, to Edward. Not only does Nathan have to learn to trust Edward, Edward also has to learn how to accept responsibility.
There’s also the sibling relationship between Dew, the youngest water monster, and Yitoo Bi’aanii, the oldest water monster sibling and most powerful in the Fourth World. They all have to learn how to accept and love each other as family members given the circumstances they are in. There’s many more ways the topic of sibling-hood, or accepting others as family, pops up, but I don’t want to spoil it!
What was the most difficult or emotional scene to write?
There were many. The last two chapters were particularly hard and I expect readers to understand why when they experience it. I was crying when I wrote it, much in the same way I cried when I wrote Nathan saving Uncle Jet from himself in Healer of the Water Monster.
The prologue also was extremely emotional and difficult because, well again I don’t want to spoil anything, it talks about real world events that have left emotional scars that still exist today. I really want to talk about it, because it’s a very important topic and one that needs to be discussed. But definitely the prologue and the final chapter were the most difficult to write but also I feel the most important to write. They both articulate an experience that is unique to Native children and that experience reshapes how United States Native children view the world around them.
What have you learned craft-wise since writing the first book? How did that affect writing the second book?
I learned how to trust in myself and my storytelling instincts. When I was writing my debut novel Healer of the Water Monster, I had a lot of self doubt. I feel like a lot of first time authors experience that as we don’t know if people will want to read our stories. I’m so thankful that readers from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and cultures have enjoyed Nathan’s first journey. Having written a book, I didn’t doubt I could do it again. I also fine tuned my plotting skills and further delved into Navajo philosophies of storytelling.
Writing the first draft of Heroes of the Water Monster was a whirlwind. I was so excitedly motivated to get to this moment I had in both my head and heart. I was writing chunks and bits on my phone while riding the subway to my then part-time job as a personal trainer because I just had to get to that moment! Since I learned how to trust in myself, writing Heroes was far more enjoyable. I was able to really hone in on the characters as well as their individual histories.
Who was the character that gave you the most trouble to write?
Honestly, it was Nathan! My first draft of Heroes of the Water Monster was strictly from Edward’s point of view. So, everything, including Nathan’s character, was presented from Edward’s perspective. And in the initial drafts, I had Nathan far more antagonistic towards Edward because of their budding step-brother relationship. I had them fighting and hating each other. I feel part of writing that draft was necessary because Heroes is largely Edward’s story, but also I wanted to challenge Nathan and my portrayal of him.
If you think about it, Nathan at the end of Healer of the Water Monster ends with him being this really powerful, caring character. I couldn’t have him just be at this level of power and level of love from the readers, it would have been boring. I needed Nathan to have obstacles and room for growth. So, I thought Edward could be that challenge that would force Nathan to emotionally grow, which is why in those initial drafts, they were far more antagonistic towards each other.
Then, I read Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Sisters of the Never Sea, (Heartdrum, 2022) and I saw how she handled step-family dynamics. First off, Sisters of the Never Sea is amazing so go read it. But I learned that not all step-families have to fight and that they could struggle with connecting in a softer more loving way. Writing Dew and Edward were fun to write. Yitoo was amazing. Everything about her just amazed me. But nailing Nathan’s room for growth while being a powerful character at the very beginning was a big challenge.
What else do you want readers to take from your story? The main message.
Everything. I want everyone to take everything from the story. There are multiple messages and each I feel are extremely important and timely. Whether it’s the issue of low water resources for the communities that rely upon the San Juan River, and by extension the Colorado River, or the need to have open discussions of important historical events and how they affect current day population, I feel this story has a lot of messages.
One message, however, that may be overshadowed by the bigger plots is the idea of blood quantum and multi-heritage indigenous peoples. Edward is both Anglo and Diné, his late mom was Angle while his dad is Diné. Edward struggles with his multi-racial identity and the racist sentiments from multiple communities. Janet, Nathan’s mom, has this amazing moment where she just lays down the law on blood quantum that I’m so excited for people to read. But, that’s veering really close to spoiler territory so I’ll leave it at that.
Which part of the book are you most excited for the readers to read?
I want to say all of it. Narrowing it down, I’d have to say Chapters 25 and Chapter 26. So, when writing Healer of the Water Monster, I often referred to the Hero’s Journey and the Diné Creation Mythology as a guide to help me shape the overall story structure and placing the plot beats.
Now, with Heroes of the Water Monster, I referred to Overcoming the Monster story structure and the Diné Hero Twins stories. So, Heroes of the Water Monster is a very different story altogether from Healer of the Water Monster. Thereʼs more action. Thereʼs a huge kaiju battle in those two chapters that Iʼm so excited for people to read. Itʼs where Nathan really shows how powerful he has become with his ability to manipulate water.
Everything I wrote, all the plot lines, the themes, the story beats, they all lead up to this moment where there is a grand climatic fight to save the Fourth World from the Modern Enemy. I’ve honestly been imagining this section every single day for the past year.
What is next for you?
I have some wonderful and exciting things coming up. The most imminent will be the release of the eco-horror graphic novel Mother Nature (Titan, 2023) by Russell Goldman and Jame Lee Curtis. I was originally brought on as a sensitivity reader but then was asked to be more involved as a consultant.
And with regards to my author career, I am currently revising my third book which will be a Young Adult novel loosely based on the time that I was a high school student at Hotchkiss, a elite private boarding school in Lakeville, Connecticut. During that time, I experienced massive culture shock as I was one of two native students on campus.
This is going to be my most personal novel to date and like always there have been a few chapters during which I cried while writing. I feel like everything I have written so far has made me cry, though for very different reasons. Like with Heroes of the Water Monster, I am excited for people to read this upcoming contemporary YA native boarding school story.
Thank you for this opportunity to answer some of your questions!
Author and filmmaker, Brian Young is a graduate of both Yale University with a Bachelor’s in Film Studies and Columbia University with a Master’s in Creative Writing Fiction. An enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, he grew up on the Navajo Reservation but now currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
As an undergraduate, Brian won a fellowship with the prestigious Sundance Ford Foundation with one of his feature length scripts. He has worked on several short films including Tsídii Nááts’íílid – Rainbow Bird and A Conversation on Race with Native Americans for the short documentary series produced by the New York Times. He was a participant of the 6th Annual Native American TV Writer’s Lab with the Native American Media Alliance, where he learned to write Television Scripts.
AJ Eversole covers children’s-YA writing, illustration, publishing, and other book news from Indigenous authors and illustrators for Cynsations. She grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to nurture the imagination. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and writes primarily young adult fiction. AJ currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas; with her family. Follow her on Instagram @ajeversole or on Twitter @amjoyeversole.