Throwback Thursday: Michaela Goade Shares Her Illustration Process

Congratulations to Michaela Goade (Tlingit) on Berry Song (Little, Brown Young Readers, 2022)! It’s the first book Michaela has authored as well as illustrated, and it received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, The Horn Book, and School Library Journal.

Take a look back at Michaela’s 2020 Cynsations interview discussing the creation of her Caldecott-award winning We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom (Anishinaabe/Métis)(Roaring Brook, 2020).

Native Voices: Author & Illustrator Interview: Carole Lindstrom & Michaela Goade

By Kim Rogers

Today, we’re chatting with Carole Lindstrom (Anishinaabe/Métis) author of We are Water Protectors (Roaring Brook, 2020) and Michaela Goade (Tlingit), who is the book’s illustrator. I met Carole and Michaela at Kweli in New York City in 2018.

Carole is also the author of Girl’s Dance, Boys Fiddle, illustrated by Kimberly McKay, (Pemmican, 2013).

Michaela is the illustrator of Encounter, written by Brittany Luby (Little, Brown, 2019), and Shanyaak’utlaxx: Salmon Boy edited by Johnny Marks, Hans Chester, David Katzeek, and Nora and Richard Dauenhauer (Sealaska Heritage Institute), winner of the 2018 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Picture book.

From the promotional copy for We Are Water Protectors:

“Inspired by the many Indigenous-led movements across North America, We are Water Protectors issues an urgent rallying cry to safeguard the earth’s water from harm and corruption.”


Please describe your illustration apprenticeship. How did you take your art from a beginner level to publishable? How has your style evolved over time?

It’s still very much an ongoing process!

At the end of 2016, I started work on my first picture book, Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy with Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI), the nonprofit cultural organization that works in tandem with our regional Native Corporation here in Juneau, Alaska.

Before that book, I had no knowledge of the illustration field or the book publishing industry for that matter and embarking on that project was a leap into the unknown.

Fortunately, I had a strong foundation in art thanks to classes, programs and camps over the years, including a degree in graphic design. But still, how did one actually make a book?

Michaela’s SHI Picture Books

Well, I was about to figure it out because Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy was quickly followed by three other picture books with SHI, and that period of two or so years was definitely a trial by fire! I was able to swiftly build my illustration skills in a cocoon of safety and familiarity, and I’ll always be grateful for that sense of creative freedom.

These were stories by Native people for Native people, and our intended regional audience was relatively small. The books were a mix of traditional adaptations and contemporary tales based in the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures, all taking place in Southeast Alaska.

When I inevitably struggled with the technical execution of illustrating, I could rely on my love for this place to see me through. All I had to do was go on a walk in the woods or down to the beach to remind myself of the magic and heart of the story, and I’ll always be thankful for that gift.

When Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy won the American Indian Library Association’s (AILA) Best Picture Book Award, it was such a wonderful surprise. I had never heard of AILA, or the American Library Association for that matter.

Michaela in her studio

I don’t say that to upset anyone, only to highlight the fact that I entered the industry in a bubble of blissful ignorance. I was able to lay some solid, authentic illustration groundwork without feeling like many people were watching.

Since then it has been a nonstop deep dive into the worlds of children’s literature, publishing and book illustration, bringing with it amazing, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming opportunities to debilitating moments of self-doubt.

If you compare my first book from 2017 with We Are Water Protectors, the illustration growth is, well, quite obvious!

I’m rather proud that my journey from complete beginner to more experienced (yet still somewhat beginner) illustrator is so well documented in a very public sense.

Interior spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

Overall my style has grown from a flatter, cleaner and more graphic design inspired approach to more layered, detailed and explorative work as my skills have improved.

With each book, I rely less on my digital skills in Photoshop because I’m learning how to match what I see in my mind with what I put down on paper.

These days I’m trying to embrace imperfections, textures and subtler color palettes while exploring other medium like graphite, colored pencil and pastels.

Cover sketch for We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

What was it about Carole’s text called to you to illustrate We are Water Protectors?

When I first read Carole’s manuscript, I was so excited!

There was already such a sense of magic to the story, but I had an overwhelming feeling that I could still bring my own to the equation. Her language was poetic and lyrical, sparse yet powerful, and I loved the sense of energy and the call to action.

And while inspired by the 2016 events at Standing Rock and an ode to those courageous Standing Rock Water Protectors, it was also a universal story about protecting Mother Earth.

The themes of environmental justice and Indigenous rights were important to me.

Work in progress from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

My Tlingit ancestors have lived in Southeast Alaska since time immemorial and we remain People of the Tides today. The region is a labyrinth of one thousand islands, coastal mountain ranges, mossy rain forests, glaciers, and so much rain.

We are literally surrounded by water and life is very much tied to it.

Mni Wiconi. Water is life! It has been such an honor to work on We Are Water Protectors.

Interior spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

What were the challenges (artistic, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing the images to life?

Each book has its own share of unique challenges and We Are Water Protectors was no different.

From an artistic standpoint, I had never painted so many people before!

Work-in-progress spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

My sketches are always pretty loose and suggestive so when it came to the final painting stage, I quickly realized that I had taken on a lot more than I at first thought! It took a lot of time, especially when you factor in all the different regalia and cultural details.

Daunting as it was, I think I really needed to take on that challenge.

From a combined artistic, research and psychological standpoint, I experienced some serious challenges.

It was important to me to convey unity, solidarity and kinship through the illustrations, and as the historic events at Standing Rock brought together over 500 Indigenous Nations and allies, I felt a lot of pressure to include as much as I could and do it as accurately as I could.

I wanted to include many different skin colors, ages, Nations, allies–I was so anxious about accidentally offending or excluding someone, incorrectly depicting cultural details, or just not getting something right.

Indigenous people have egregiously been misrepresented or erased from the narrative entirely, and that’s something I try to be really sensitive to when illustrating Indigenous stories, especially when those stories fall outside my experience.

Interior spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

I know these books will receive close inspection and scrutiny, and I respectfully understand why. I want to do right by everyone.

I typically put high expectations on myself and in most instances, that’s a good thing, but in this instance the overthinking and over-analyzing left me frozen from anxiety.

On those days I really had to focus on putting my head down and trusting that I’d figure it out one illustration at a time. I think some pressure can be a good thing as it keeps me accountable and focused, but I’m still working to manage that balance.

Interior spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

What advice do you have for beginning children’s illustrators?

Look for smaller, local opportunities. You never know where they might lead you. Help tell the stories that are close to your heart because you will most likely work on them for a long time.

And if you are writing your own books as well, search for the stories that make your soul sing, that only you can tell.

Remember what it was like to be a kid. It was magical and enchanting to be sure, but mixed in you’ll find wild curiosity, apprehension and fear of the unknown.

For me, delving into those tensions–as both an illustrator and beginning author-illustrator–is where I find the most inspiration.

Michaela in her studio


What inspired you to write for young readers?

I spent a great deal of time at the library as a child. It was down the street from my house, and I practically lived there on Saturday. Sunday I would spend in my room reading the books. I loved books. I knew in my heart I would write books one day.

Carole was an avid young reader

As a Native American child, I never saw myself in books. Just shameful and embarrassing portrayals of me. I couldn’t find the kids that looked like me.

So, I decided I would write children’s books that more accurately show the world that I wanted to see as a child. It’s important for Indigenous children to see themselves in books. And just as important for non-Indigenous children to see us in the world through books.

Please describe your writing apprenticeship. How did you take your writing from a beginner level to publishable?

I started writing for children after my son was born. Around 2008, I took courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I also attended many SCBWI conferences where I submitted my work for critiques.

It’s been a long road. I began by querying agents. But when that didn’t go anywhere, I started querying publishers since I thought it might be good to have a book under my belt before I attracted the attention of an agent.

Carole kayaking

My first picture book was published with a small publisher in Canada. It was so encouraging to me to actually have a publisher want to publish my story. I thought it would be a bit easier with subsequent manuscripts since I had the published book. But it wasn’t.

I kept at the conferences, honing my craft and working at becoming a stronger writer. It wasn’t until four years after my first book that I landed my agent with the manuscript “We Are Water Protectors.”

In case anyone doubts the power of social media, that is truly how I landed my agent. So, don’t count it out! It has been invaluable to me and my writing career.

What was your inspiration for writing We are Water Protectors?

We are Water Protectors was inspired by Standing Rock and all Indigenous peoples’ fight for clean water. I felt so helpless at the time that Standing Rock was happening. I couldn’t make it there. I didn’t know how I could help, other than sharing the events on social media. I thought I would write a book. I’ve been writing for a long time. I thought I could put my words to paper and tell a story that could help to educate young people about these issues.

Interior spread from We Are Water Protectors, illustration by Michaela Goade, used with permission.

How did you navigate the process of finding an agent and, with representation, connecting your manuscript to a publisher?

I just always kept track of what agents were looking for. If I saw a certain agent that I was interested in was looking for work like mine then I would submit it.

I got my agent completely by serendipity. I didn’t know that she had been looking for stories about Standing Rock on Twitter six months prior to signing with her. I had sent her a friend request on Facebook about a year before we became Facebook friends.

One day she just accepted my request out of the blue. I took that as I sign that I should query her the Water Protector manuscript. So, I did. Ten minutes later she in-boxed me that she wanted to talk and that was that. I love her. She’s just the best.

What mentor books were most useful to you and how?

One of my favorite mentor books is, Just Write: Here’s How! by Walter Dean Myers (HarperCollins, 2012). It is my bible. Truly the most down to earth and smart writing advice I’ve ever read. Love that book!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers embarking on this journey?

Do not ever give up! And keep working to hone your craft and make your writing the best it can be. Always looking to grow and improve as a writer.

Cynsational Notes

Author/Illustrator Michaela Goade, photo by Sydney Akagi

Michaela Goade is a Caldecott Medalist and #1 New York Times Bestselling illustrator of We Are Water Protectors, also a 2020 Kirkus Prize Finalist. Other books include the New York Times Bestselling I Sang You Down from the Stars by Tasha Spillett-Sumner (Little, Brown, 2021), Encounter and Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy, winner of the 2018 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Picture Book.

Over the last few years, Michaela’s work has focused on Indigenous KidLit. She is honored to work with Indigenous authors and tribal organizations in the creation of beautiful and much-needed books. An enrolled member of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Michaela’s Tlingit name is Sheit.een and she is of the Kiks.ádi Clan (Raven/Frog) from Sheet’ká.

“Following the artist path has enabled me to reconnect with my culture, a true gift that has become both an anchor and a north star. It’s been an incredibly enriching experience and I’ll keep learning and working to honor the culture and tribe.”

Michaela was raised in the rainforest and on the beaches of Southeast Alaska, traditional Lingít Aaní (Tlingit land). Today she lives in Sheet’ká (Sitka), Alaska, a magical island on the edge of a wide, wild sea.

Her upcoming picture books include: Remember by Joy Harjo (Random House Studio, March 21, 2023) and Being Home by Traci Sorell (Kokila, Fall 2023).

Carole Lindstrom is a New York Times–bestselling and award-winning author of literature for young people, including of the Caldecott Medal–winning We Are Water Protectors. She is Anishinaabe/Métis and an enrolled citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe. She is honored to write books that allow her to shine a light on her beautiful people and their strength and resilience. Her tribal homelands are in Belcourt, North Dakota, but she was born and raised in Nebraska and currently makes her home in Maryland.

Her upcoming work includes My Powerful Hair, illustrated by Steph Littlebird (Abrams, March 21, 2023).

Kim Rogers writes books, short stories, and poems for young readers. Her debut picture book, Just Like Grandma, illustrated by Julie Flett, is slated for Jan. 24, 2023; A Letter for Bob, illustrated by Jonathan Nelson, is planned for summer 2023; and I Am Osage: How Clarence Tinker became the First Native American Major General, illustrated by Bobby Von Martin comes out in winter of 2024, all with HarperCollins/Heartdrum. She is a contributor to Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids (HarperCollins/Heartdrum, 2021). The cover, illustrated by Nicole Neidhardt, was inspired by Jessie, the protagonist in her short story, “Flying Together.” Her poem, “What is a Powwow” is also included.

Kim is an enrolled member of Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Much of her current writing highlights her Wichita heritage. She lives with her family on her tribe’s ancestral homelands in Oklahoma.