Profile of 2021 Caldecott Medal winner Michaela Goade

In a tiny cabin, surrounded on three sides by ocean, Michaela Goade dipped her brush into a jar of water. She uncapped and squeezed paint — cerulean, cobalt, ultramarine — onto her mixing palette. At last, color combination perfected, Michaela brought brush to paper. Watercolor is a daunting medium for many artists, but not for Michaela. Rather than shy away from the often unpredictable will of the water, she chooses to honor it. Water is alive, and to be revered, she knows. Would it cooperate with her vision? Or would it rebel on the page, as water often does, performing with a mind of its own?

Michaela Goade knows all about water. As an enrolled member of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska — where they identify as People of the Tides — water has shaped her entire life. Raised since infancy in Juneau, Alaska, Michaela spent her childhood beside or on the water. While her father and sister fished from the beach, Michaela crept through tide pools, hunting for fishing lures in the rocks, cut and left behind by unlucky fishermen. (She stored her sparkling findings in an old purple plastic jewelry box.) When a humpback whale swam too close to her kayak, Michaela’s mother calmed her, assuring her that there was nothing to worry about. There were so many boats, and memories of riding through storms so severe that Michaela was certain she and her family would capsize. Michaela learned quickly that water was where anything and everything can be found — from eighty-thousand-pound sea creatures to pinky-sized abandoned treasures; from the ­terrifying sense of mortality to the tiniest thrills of discovery.

As a young girl, Michaela also discovered that she was an artist. Even as a toddler, whenever she was toted along to her sister’s preschool classroom, the teachers scrambled to hide the paints, knowing tiny Michaela would use them all up if she could. As she got older, she spent hours filling sketchbooks with aliens and spaceships, all kinds of animals, the views outside her window, princesses and fairies. (The fairies were her favorites.) And when she wasn’t drawing, she wrote poems, played piano, and sang. She took every art class that she could. The more she could learn about and make art, the happier she felt.

Michaela began her college years at Western Washington University, but she didn’t stay long. When she wasn’t admitted into their fine arts program, she knew she’d need to go elsewhere. So she switched to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, a small liberal arts school in the high desert near the Four Corners area. It was there that she began focusing on graphic design, although she continued to take classes in painting and printmaking on the side. Michaela was grateful, for so many reasons, to be there. Because of an agreement between the state of Colorado and the federal government, tribally enrolled students like Michaela could receive a tuition-free education. This meant there was a robust Native student population, which she loved. And the school itself was beautiful. But deep down, she missed life on the water.

Soon after graduation, Michaela began working as a graphic designer (and eventually as an art director) with a small creative agency in Anchorage, Alaska. She enjoyed her job, and was good at it. But she didn’t love every aspect of the work. And she missed Southeast Alaska more than ever. It was time to move home.

Back home, Michaela began freelancing. She picked up clients and prioritized projects that made her heart sing. She also met and fell in love with her partner, Zach. And just as everything else was coming together for her, another exciting opportunity presented itself: the Sealaska Heritage Institute (“a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska”) had issued a call. They were building a children’s book program, Baby Raven Reads — and needed illustrators. “I thought, well, hey, this is a perfect opportunity to learn about that illustration thing I was once so excited about!” Michaela recalls. It was indeed a fortuitous moment, but making those first books was a far greater challenge than Michaela had expected. With no bookmaking experience to draw on, she realized she didn’t know what she didn’t know. Yet, in the end, the experience wound up feeling like a perfect way to learn: working with a supportive team and in an environment she likens to a “safe cocoon.” Best of all, the subject matter she was working on — a children’s story about respect for nature, animals, and culture, inspired by an ancient Tlingit tale — was near and dear to her heart.

Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy was Michaela’s first book, and a project she wrestled with mightily, but in the end it was a triumph, winning her the American Indian Library Association’s 2018 Best Picture Book Award. Michaela reflects on the many debilitating moments of self-doubt she experienced while creating that first book, wishing she had remembered earlier that almost always at the other end of fear and the unknown await more “amazing, pinch-me-I’m-dreaming opportunities.”

After Salmon Boy, Michaela illustrated three more books for the Sealaska Heritage Institute. Unlike the more soulless design projects she’d left behind, at last she was doing what she truly loved — illustrating stories entirely by Native people, for Native people. Listening to her heart and following the artist’s path had guided her back to a life that felt meaningful. Reconnecting with her culture, she says, was “a true gift that has become both an anchor and a north star.”

Michaela’s Sealaska projects shone so brightly that it wasn’t long before editor Susan Rich took notice of her talent. Susan was looking for an Indigenous artist for a picture book she was working on, Encounter by Brittany Luby. Michaela’s style was perfect! Soon Michaela had an offer on the table, and then a lucky new agent (*waves hello*). And then again, it wasn’t long before another editor, Mekisha Telfer, was captivated by Michaela’s art, ­bringing still another book project to her for consideration.

Reading Carole Lindstrom’s manuscript for We Are Water Protectors for the first time, Michaela’s emotions were profound and complicated. Inside, she swirled with feelings: honor at being considered for such a brilliantly crafted text; wonder about how she might bring Carole’s powerful words to visual life; concern as to whether or not she was indeed the right artist for the project; and excitement about what such a book might allow her to do. Carole’s story resonated deeply with Michaela. She, too, had long been struggling with anger over the installation of pipelines on tribal lands and waterways. She, too, wanted to fight back. Now she had a way to bring her voice into the mix of protest, but in a way that felt perfectly right for her — with a brush. Luckily, Michaela ultimately decided that she was the right artist for the book. Because, really, if there is anything Michaela Goade knows all about, it’s water.

Yes, Michaela knows all about water. Because it is her home, and where she belongs. She belongs where raucous seagulls and ravens make it impossible for her to sleep during their low-tide feasts. She belongs where the herring return in the springtime, and then the humpback whales soon follow, where she can chase them along the point and watch with delight as they feed. She belongs perched above a small storm beach, planting a tiny Tlingit potato patch where it will see lots of sunlight and absorb all the nourishment it needs from the seaweed-infused soil.

It is living near the water, and with tubes of watercolor paints and a mug of water at her side, that Michaela knows anything is possible. So, as she first touches her brush to paper, she understands that no matter what she has planned, she is about to experience the unexpected. Perhaps — like a deep and unpredictably turbulent indigo — her journey will be a challenge to navigate; almost certainly at first it will overwhelm her. But also, without question, she has learned, if she trusts the water — ­granting it her full permission to her take her where it will — she will land just where she should. Maybe, when she is finished, she will have discovered something that sparkles, like a long-ago lost lure. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be something even bigger, something life-changing…like a golden Caldecott Medal.

From the July/August 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2021.

Single copies of this special issue are available for $15.00 including postage and may be ordered from:

Kristy South
Administrative Coordinator, The Horn Book
Phone 888-282-5852 | Fax 614-733-7269

Kirsten Hall

Kirsten Hall is founder and owner of Catbird, a boutique children's book agency proud to represent Michaela Goade. Her own picture books include New York Times Notable The Jacket (Enchanted Lion), Lee Bennett Hopkins honoree The Honeybee (Atheneum), and NCTE Notable Poetry Book Snow Birds (Abrams).

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