On Sunday afternoon, Michaela Goade, illustrator of We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, joined a Zoom meeting scheduled with Mekisha Telfer, her editor at Roaring Brook, and other Macmillan staffers, to discuss what could happen when the winners of the ALA Youth Media Awards were announced the following day. Or so she thought. Instead, Goade was greeted by a screen filled with many more smiling faces than she expected—some unfamiliar to her—who were in fact the members of the Caldecott committee.

“They launched right into the news that I had won the Caldecott, and I kind of froze,” she recalled. “I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights and did not know what to say!”

At a subsequent Zoom get-together, this one with the book’s immediate Macmillan teammates and Lindstrom, the author was told about the Caldecott win. “To watch Carole receive the news was so very exciting,” Goade said. “She was just ecstatic—and showed everything I was feeling when I first heard about the award, but just wasn’t capable of showing.”

When PW phoned Goade at her Sitka, Alaska home on Monday afternoon, she was still elated, but admittedly “exhausted,” since she had been awake since 5 a.m. to watch the official awards announcement on Zoom. “But even before that early rising, she said, given Sunday’s excitement, “I honestly did not sleep much at all last night.”

Goade, an enrolled member of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, is the first BIPOC woman and the first Indigenous illustrator to win the Caldecott. She recalled being drawn into Lindstrom’s story when she first read the manuscript for We Are Water Protectors in late summer 2018. The book is based on 2016’s youth-led Indigenous activism at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Indian Reservation to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, threatening sacred Sioux land and water.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to work on this book,” Goade said. “Carole told a story rooted in real events and it has a universal truth to it that resonated with me. I grew up in Southeast Alaska, traditional Lingít Aaní—Tlingit land—and We Are Water Protectors rang true on so many levels. Water is life here, and I knew that this story was a great match for me. And in fact, illustrating it was magical.”

The project presented Goade with new challenges, which she eagerly tackled. “The story doesn’t have a clear linear plot, and that was a first for me,” she explained. “I needed to find a common theme to carry through the story and give it a sense of consistency to guide the reader along. Also, I had never before illustrated a book with so many people in it, so that was quite a challenge. And there were so many different cultural elements to add, including regalia from various Nations. That was daunting, but fun.”

In another way, Goade added, We Are Water Protectors involved “a real discovery process for me, since I pushed myself with different new techniques, including negative painting and watercolor, and I tried to include more traditional media like colored pencil and gouache and fewer digital tweaks.”

Looking back on her “bookmaking frenzy,” Goade remembers being excited about the art she was creating and being confident it would be well received, yet, she noted, “I didn’t foresee how widely the message of We Are Water Protectors would be embraced and how it would hit home with so many, well beyond the Native communities. It is a message that unites us all, and that is very reaffirming.”

Goade’s next picture book, I Sang You Down from the Stars, written by Tasha Spillett, is due in April from Little, Brown, which will also publish Goade’s first solo work, yet to be titled, next year. “The core concept of my author-illustrator debut is similar to those at the heart of all my illustration—a love for the land and connectedness,” she said.

Goade offered an even-keeled response when asked if being a Caldecott Medalist will put additional pressure on her going forward. “That will remain to be seen,” she replied. “I’m sure it will at times, but that’s to be expected since I always have self-doubt in moments of anxiety. Every book is its own mountain to climb, though with more eyes on my work, it is apt to be a bit more nerve-wracking. But on the other hand, this award tells me that I’m on the right path and I should keep pushing in this direction. And I’m very grateful for that.”