March 10, 2020

Let's Talk Illustrators #135: Michaela Goade

I was so pleased to get a chance to talk to illustrator Michaela Goade about We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom. Among many other topics, we talk about her research process for representing a wide array of Indigenous peoples, as well as historical and modern traditions, in her work. Enjoy the conversation!


About the book:
Water is the first medicine.
It affects and connects us all...


When a black snake threatens to destroy the Earth
And poison her people’s water, one young water protector
Takes a stand to defend Earth’s most sacred resource.

Let's talk Michaela Goade!


LTPB: Given the subject matter, what did it mean to you that you got to illustrate this book? What were your first thoughts when you saw the manuscript? Was there any imagery you just knew you had to include somewhere”? 

MG: I was so honored to be given the opportunity to help bring this story to life. The book is an ode to the Standing Rock Water Protectors, a celebration of unity and solidarity, a call for action, and a love letter to Mother Earth and water protectors everywhere. It has meant so much to me to work on this project. I remember feeling a sense of excitement and magic upon first reading Carole’s manuscript. The language was poetic yet sparse, powerful yet simple, and I felt like there was a lot of room for me to explore around her words. Imagery that sprang to mind included large swaths of sparkling watercolor, plenty of animals and plant life, and cosmic scenes. Ultimately, I wanted the art to burst with life, color and vibrancy, as well as complement the story’s call to action. I wanted water to be its own character with its own shifting energy and magic.



Illustrating this book was a very moving and emotional process and I am just so grateful that this book will soon be out in the world and reaching children everywhere. It has meant so much to be able to help raise awareness of environmental justice, Indigenous rights, and to add my voice to the collective defense of Mother Earth. 


LTPB: What inspired all the patterns and colors we see? What was your research process like? What challenges did you encounter? 

MG: As this story was inspired by the Standing Rock Water Protectors, I took a deep dive into the 2016 events. I read countless articles and interviews, watched videos, looked at hundreds and hundreds of images from North Dakota and solidarity events around the world. I knew that there would be limits to what I could understand, knew that there was only so much I could fit into one book, and recognized that this was also a universal story that spoke to protecting Mother Earth in a broader sense. But I wanted to be informed, reference as much as I could and honor the water protectors as best I could. To me, it was important to convey themes of kinship, solidarity, and strength in numbers. It was important to include many different skin colors, different ages, and a wide array of traditional regalia and contemporary clothes. I wanted history and tradition to be visible, and I wanted it to be obvious that it was set in current times because Indigenous peoples are continuously fighting against erasure. Including all of this turned out to be a technical challenge as I hadn’t actually illustrated all that many people before!



But it was also a mental challenge. I wanted to get cultural details right and sometimes the pressure and anxiety I felt were quite debilitating. I didn’t want to offend anyone. The thought of accidentally excluding someone, incorrectly illustrating regalia or other cultural details, or something along those lines was a real stumbling block for me. The author, Carole Lindstrom, belongs to the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation, and so I centered my visual inspiration around her in order to both honor her culture and provide an anchor to the visual narrative. In the book, our protagonist wears a traditional ribbon skirt, many of the animals hold special significance in traditional teachings, repeated turtle imagery honors the people of Turtle Island, and last but not least, the floral motifs I repeat throughout the book are inspired by the traditional Anishinaabe woodland style. 




LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium? How does your process change from book to book? 

MG: Watercolor is my preferred medium, which is what I primarily used for WAWP. It seemed right for a book celebrating water! I also added in some colored pencil and gouache detailing with some digital edits in photoshop at the end.


My process from book to book definitely changes. If you compare WAWP to the first book I illustrated in 2017 (Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy), the differences are, well, very obvious! Essentially I’ve been learning how to illustrate with each new book project. I was always drawing as a kid and have a foundation in the arts thanks to classes and programs over the years, but illustration is something I never studied or knew much about. However, I was always obsessed with animated movies, certain video games and of course picture books – I should’ve known! For a couple years after college I worked as a graphic designer at an agency before quitting to pursue full-time freelance. One of my first big projects was in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska, which happened to entail illustrating a few wonderful picture books for a local Native non-profit (Sealaska Heritage Institute and its Baby Raven Reads program) geared to Native children from the three tribes of our region – the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian.

Six books later and I’m starting to feel comfortable experimenting with style and medium now that each book no longer feels like a huge undertaking of the unknown! Of course, each book is its own adventure and becomes its own world and I’m sure there will always be a degree of jumping into the unknown with each project. That’s part of the fun. What works visually with one might not be the best path for the next. I feel like so much of my illustration journey so far has been learning how to illustrate and now I’m beginning to explore the space around that. Currently I’m having fun playing with pencil, pastels and graphite in addition to watercolor.

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to illustrating children’s books? 

MG: Yes, I’ve enjoyed a very diverse creative career the last few years. In addition to book projects, I’ve regularly taken on design/branding work Alaskan businesses and organizations, different sorts of commissioned illustration projects ranging from menu illustration to shirt graphics to book covers, and lots of other miscellaneous projects. I’ve also been working on my own personal art business over the last couple years, selling art prints online and at events while starting to get into a bit of wholesale. 



At first book illustration projects were what I did on the side, since I needed to take on a fair amount of additional work to make ends meet. However, now that I have a few more books under my belt, the tables have begun to turn and book work is increasingly my main focus. I’m so grateful for this as I get to be more deliberate regarding the side work I take on and save more time for the books I want to create. The last few years have been a busy, busy whirlwind. If you’d told me just a few years ago that I’d get to make picture books for a living, I never would have believed you!

LTPB: What are you working on now? Anything you can show us? 

MG: Nothing I can actually show anyone yet apart from little sketch snippets, but currently I’m wrapping up art for I Sang You Down From the Stars, a beautiful story written by Tasha Spillett with Little, Brown set to publish next spring. Then I’ll be working on my author-illustrator debut which I am SO excited about. The title is TBA, but it will be set in my very favorite place in the world, Southeast Alaska, featuring some of my very favorite things – the ocean, forest and the magic of nature.


LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why? 

MG: This is a hard one. Can I choose myself? I think it would be the most rewarding and challenging project. So much of my story would be rooted in a love for the rainforests, islands, waterways and wildlife of Southeast Alaska, and there’s nothing I love better than to paint this place! My Tlingit ancestors have been here since time immemorial, and I think it would be important that the illustrator understand this part of the world, its history and the beautiful and vibrant cultures that make it truly special.

All that being said, if I really had to choose someone else I think it would be Daniel Egnéus. Years ago, long before I had any thoughts of illustrating books dancing around in my brain, I stumbled upon his version of Little Red Riding Hood and fell in love with it. There were no little kids in my life but I bought it anyway and took it with me to college, and it has moved with me ever since. He is so talented at capturing the dreamy, the magical, the ethereal and the dark foreboding – all aesthetics I’m drawn to. I think he could make some gorgeous forest and ocean scenes.

A million thanks to Michaela for taking time to answer questions! We Are Water Protectors publishes next week from Roaring Brook Press!

Special thanks to Michaela and Roaring Brook Press for use of these images!



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