q&a with michaela goade!
Hello, everyone! We are less than a month away from the release of I Can Make This Promise, which means I’m about to be very active online, and very low on sleep over the next few weeks. :) But it’s going to be fun! So much fun! After years of hard work and waiting and yearning, the release of my first novel is finally happening. I can’t wait for you all to meet Edie. She’s so special to me.
In the meantime, it’s an honor and a pleasure to share this wonderful interview with Michaela Goade (Tlingit)! As you might recall from my cover reveal post, Michaela is my brilliant cover artist. I’m so grateful to her for taking the time to answer my questions, and for asking me such thoughtful questions in return! This was such a fun conversation, and I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I do:
Christine: Hello, Michaela! Thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me. To get us started, would you please take a moment to introduce yourself, your tribal nation, and your background as an artist?
Michaela: Hello! My Lingít name is Sheiteen. In English, I am called Michaela Goade. I belong to the Tlingit tribe of Southeast Alaska and am of the Kiks.ádi (Raven/Frog) clan and Steel House. I was raised in Juneau, Alaska, where I currently live today in a little cabin by the sea.
Art has played a role in my life for as long as I can remember, whether it was after school programs, summer art camps, or high school classes. I attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado where I studied graphic design, and followed my other passions through drawing, painting and printmaking classes.
After college, I worked as a graphic designer and art director while running my own freelance business on the side. Eventually I felt overworked and burnt out, and I was feeling the need for greater creativity in my life, so I took the leap into full-time freelance!
In a fortuitous turn of events, the opportunity to work on my first picture book, Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy, presented itself shortly after that. I’d been really keen on getting into the picture book world, but had no idea how to make it happen. The local opportunity took off and since then I’ve been able to illustrate five other books and am now working on writing and illustrating my own. I still take on design projects here and there, but the bulk of my projects are now book-related, and I am so very happy about it!
Michaela: Perhaps you could also introduce yourself, your tribal nation, and your inspirations behind I Can Make This Promise?
Christine: Gladly! I’m an enrolled member of the Upper Skagit. My mother is a pre-ICWA adoptee, and my father is of mixed European heritage. I grew up in the suburbs of Seattle, in occupied Duwamish lands. I recognize and honor the Duwamish and Suquamish people as the true stewards of Seattle.
As I wrote this book, I drew from my memories, my family, my education, my surroundings, and my imagination. It was a really cathartic and self-indulgent process. The story is deeply inspired by my own life. The lines between fact and fiction have been blurred, but they intersect often, in intricate and inextricable ways.
Michaela: What challenges did you encounter while writing this book? And how long did it take you to write it?
Christine: Honestly, I think my biggest challenge was the representation. Which might sound silly, considering how personal it all is, as a biracial Native woman and the daughter of a Native American adoptee. But to me, it wasn’t so simple! I really wanted to be mindful and purposeful with these characters. Since Edie is Duwamish and Suquamish (and I’m not), it was important to show the distinctions between Coast Salish communities and our ancestral territories. It was also important to add an Author’s Note at the end, a small space for me to address the readers and elaborate further on certain aspects of the history, geography, and events referenced within the book.
I started Edie’s story in May 2016. I saw a call for submissions from Penguin Young Readers and We Need Diverse Books, in honor of Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. They were seeking MG novels from unpublished, diverse writers. I hadn’t considered writing MG before (I was trying to break into the YA market at the time), but this opportunity excited me. I remembered all these great novels I’d loved as a child, and I felt inspired to write my own!
I finished the first draft of Edie’s story in less than a month. It was about 10,000 words shorter than the final version of the book, and it was extremely rough. But that first draft was one of the greatest creative whirlwinds of my life. I’ll never forget it.
I submitted the story to Penguin before the June deadline. When I didn’t hear back from them, I entered #DVpit in October (for the second time) and started querying literary agents (for the fourth time!). And that was when I started revising in earnest, which I continued to do all the way from signing with my agent, to selling the book, to completing the copy edits.
So really, this book was mainly a work in progress from May 2016 to November 2018!
Christine: You recently won the American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Picture Book! Huge congratulations! What was the process like for you to adapt an ancient Tlingit story for contemporary audiences? Why is Salmon Boy particularly special or relevant for kids today?
Michaela: Gunalchéesh (thank you)! The book is called Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy and it was published by Sealaska Heritage Institute, a non-profit that perpetuates and enhances Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures in Southeast Alaska and works alongside Sealaska, our regional Native corporation.
The process for adapting an ancient Tlingit story for contemporary audiences was a tricky one! I began by surrounding myself with a huge array of inspiration and reference material, and the sketches came together more smoothly than I expected. Perhaps because I was already so familiar with the natural setting, and I had been writing little stories and making books from a young age. I didn't know enough in that regard to psych myself out! But when it came to execution, I honestly had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t considered myself a true “artist” in some time, and I definitely didn’t know much about illustration or how to find an illustrative voice or style. And to make it extra difficult, I chose to do it all in watercolor, a medium I had very little experience with. So I had those technical hurdles to get over. And then on another level, I felt a great responsibility to do right by my culture and tribe, which on most days felt inspiring but on others, rather intimidating! I think what got me through those those overwhelming moments was the fact that I felt deeply connected to the story and world of Shanyaak’utlaax. I was raised here in Southeast Alaska and its natural beauty is one of the biggest inspirations behind my work, so while I struggled with the technical processes of bringing the book to life, I didn’t have to reach far to find the magic.
The team at Sealaska Heritage Institute gave me a lot of creative freedom and trusted my vision. I really appreciated their knowledge of culture, customs and traditions, since that wasn’t my area of expertise and when working with stories like these, you want to make sure you’re doing things correctly and respectfully. It ended up being a very organic process.
Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy is, at its core, a story about respecting the natural world and becoming a responsible steward of the land. I believe that stories like these will always be relevant, but particularly today when climate change is rapidly changing the world around us and we struggle to understand what’s next and what to do about it. I believe that we can and should be advocates for Mother Earth and one way to do that is to respectfully hold these important stories up with the hope that future generations can learn from their wisdom.
Christine: The text in your picture book is written in both Tlingit and English. Can you explain the significance of seeing your language featured in this book? Why is it important for Native and non-Native kids to see linguistic diversity? Could you share any stories about Tlingit kids or families reacting to the text?
Michaela: It is incredibly important that Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy is written in Tlingit and English. Especially when Tlingit is presented first! I think it’s significant in many ways, particularly in that serves to reinforce the importance and beautiful complexity of this indigenous language. It’s my hope that it encourages Native children to feel pride and know that they matter and that their culture is vibrant, visible and important, in a world that too often tells them the opposite. For non-Native kids, it’s also significant that they grow up being exposed to the indigenous languages of the land they live on, repeatedly. What a crucial step in cross-cultural awareness and respect! As a child going through the local school system, I can think of one or two units from kindergarten through senior year, that exposed us to the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, racism was an issue. I hope it’s getting better, and books like these are a step in the right direction.
A teacher in Juneau recently wrote to tell me that she read a couple of the Baby Raven Reads books that I illustrated to her class. At one point a boy exclaimed, "Hey! That's my clan!" and later, the class came to the conclusion that one of their own, Mary, looked just like Raven's Niece, the young female protagonist from the story. How amazing is that? When working on Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy (and later, other books with Sealaska Heritage Institute), I couldn't help but think, "I wish these books were around when I was little!" And now, wonderfully, they are.
Michaela: What were your goals with I Can Make This Promise? What do you hope readers will take from it?
Christine: Your reflections about the impact of Shanyaak’utlaax: Salmon Boy really align with my own goals for I Can Make This Promise. I love the idea of Native kids recognizing themselves in contemporary literature. I want Native books to become commonplace in American classrooms, so that all children can grow up learning about the stewards of this land, the diversity of our communities, and the brightness of our futures. I don’t want our kids to be raised in a world where sincere empathy and understanding are radical concepts. There are so many painful stereotypes about Native people, most of which are rooted in misconceptions that can easily be debunked. I want to open these conversations.
And beyond that, I also just hope that readers will enjoy I Can Make This Promise. My dream is for young people to read my work, because they want to. Like really, genuinely want to. Life is too short to read books you don’t thoroughly enjoy!
Christine: Can you describe the process of creating a cover for I Can Make This Promise? What was it like to work with the designer, Sarah Nichole Kaufman? What materials did you use? What mindset or artistic philosophies did you bring to this task?
Michaela: I loved working with Sarah Kaufman! She was wonderful. I was given reference material and notes about what they were looking for, but also given the freedom to explore other ideas I might have. I think we hit on a happy medium!
One of the things Sarah told me in the beginning was that they were drawn to my work for its depiction of the Pacific Northwest. If you’re from here or spent some time here, I think you can understand the mysterious magic of our region. But even if you haven’t, there is something very unique and evocative about this corner of the world that I think speaks to a lot of people. So all that being said, my initial mindset was focused on creating an identifiable Pacific Northwest feel.
Watercolor is my medium of choice these days, as I find it beautifully captures the interplay of ocean, forest and sky. My usual process is to paint as much of the background as possible, paint additional elements like trees or plants, scan in everything and put it together digitally.
Christine: How would you describe the mood of this cover, in a single word or phrase?
Michaela: Dreamily contemplative and hopeful!
Christine: I love that! ‘Hopeful’ is one word I had in mind, too. Thank you so much for joining me in this Q&A!