Sitka illustrator Michaela Goade was awarded one of the highest honors in children’s literature this week. Goade, who is Tlingit, is the first Indigenous person to win the Caldecott Medal for her work on “We are Water Protectors.”
Earlier this week, Michaela Goade thought she was signing on to an ordinary Zoom call with her small publishing team. Instead, she was met with a group of new faces congratulating her on her win.
“I was completely caught off guard and didn’t even really know what to say beyond just thank you a million times,” she said.
The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association to the artist of the most distinguished children’s picture book.
“It’s kind of like the pinnacle for kids books, it’s called like the Oscars of kids books, so it’s a dream I think a lot of us have and it was definitely a far-fetched dream, like maybe one day if I’m lucky,” Goade said.
The 15-person award committee chose “We are Water Protectors” from more than 100 other children’s books sent to them by publishing companies. Chair Annisha Jeffries said the book was chosen for its powerful message and its captivating illustrations.
“You know looking at the beautiful illustrations by Michaela, it just gave an overwhelming pictorial representation throughout the book. And she was able to breathe so much life into the story,” Jeffries said.
The book urges activism to protect water and other natural resources. Author Carole Lindstrom was inspired by Indigenous led movements like the 2016 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. When Goade read the story, she knew immediately that she wanted to illustrate it.
“Just growing up in Southeast Alaska, being Tlingit, people of the tides — water is a way of life here, and it is our life here in so many different ways, so that core theme really resonated,” she said.
Goade is a member of the Kiks.ádi Clan of Sitka and the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. She made national headlines as the first Indigenous person and the first BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) woman to win the award.
“I think it’s important to look at that and digest it and acknowledge and reflect on being the first in the award’s 83 year history, while also just being excited for the future and just know that there have been a lot of big strides in the publishing industry in the last few years,” she said.
Goade also received attention late last year when her drawing of Alaska Native leader Elizabeth Peratrovich was featured as Google’s Doodle of the Day. She said some of the most powerful recognition she’s received is from Indigenous children and their parents. She hopes this book and the honor help elevate their voices.
“To help Indigenous children feel seen and validated and adults and to know that their voices and their stories are worthy of everyone lifting them up,” Goade said.
Goade’s next book is a collaboration with author Tasha Spillett-Sumner called I Sang You Down from the Stars. It comes out in April. She’s also working on a book set in Southeast Alaska that focuses on traditional food gathering and generational knowledge.
Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.