Book Review: We Are Water Protectors – a powerful book that yields its wisdom drop by drop

Written by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade, Roaring Brook Press, 2020

Caldecott Medal Winner 2021

I was keen to read this book the moment I set eyes on the cover and met the gaze of the determined young girl in the centre. She looks out at us, unflinching. It’s a powerful start to a powerful and beautiful book.

The character of the narrator drives the story. A young Native American girl, she learns about the vital importance of water from her Nokomis, her grandmother, and she stands with her people, and all people, to protect the Earth, the natural world, from the oil pipelines, the ‘black snakes’ that cross tribal lands, polluting waterways, damaging and destroying the environment. The book was inspired by the Standing Rock Water Protectors and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I need to read a book several times over with my children before I can think about reviewing it. Some of the best yield their magic drop by drop, each reading giving a little more and a little more. This book, the combination of Carole Lindstrom’s poetic story-telling and the strength of Michaela Goade’s sweeping illustrations, is layered with meaning, releasing a little more wisdom and understanding to us each time we read together. It’s also an exquisite book visually, the illustrations a potent mixture of swirling colour, intricate woodland floral designs inspired by traditional Anishinaabe artwork, and the characterful rendition of the narrator, the girl standing strong, and also mourning the loss and damage.

This book is the start of many conversations, because as the authors note at the end, ‘This is not just a Native American issue; this is a humanitarian issue.’ Through this book and the example of the powerful girl at its heart, we talk about Native American peoples and Indigenous Nations around the world, their history and culture and knowledge. Like the best reading, I’m not teaching my children so much as learning with them. I can tell them about oil and fossil fuels. But some of the messages we notice together – my daughter pointing out the girl’s hair as it becomes the water, the fish swimming in its swirls, the connectedness between girl and nature. She looks at the black snake and the people gathered together at the end – ‘the snake can’t bite all of them,’ she says. That was this book’s message for us today – if enough people stand, the black snake cannot defeat all of us. I wonder what drop of wisdom this book will have for us tomorrow?

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