The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with June Smalls
Writing and Illustrating is magic.
Don't forget you are making things appear
out of thin air.
~ June Smalls
June Smalls writes books that are funny, educational, odd, and entertaining. Living in Virginia with the Hubby, The Kid, and an ever-growing number of animals June writes whenever and wherever possible. Hungry to always keep learning, and just plain hungry a lot of the time, June loves zoos, aquariums, museums, nature, and food.
She's the author of: Odd Animal ABC’s (2019), We Need Prairie Dogs (2019), and Celtic Gods, Heroes, and Mythology (2018).
Her newest nonfiction picture book, She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch, releases May 26, 2020.
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? How did you get started? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
Thank you for having me. I’ve been writing seriously since about 2013. I’ve always enjoyed writing and I dabbled off and on throughout my adulthood. At some point, while reading to The Kid I decided I loved kid lit and I was going to be traditionally published. I don’t have a favorite style or genre. I love that I write in different genres and both fiction and nonfiction so I can go for whatever speaks to me at the moment, whether that is at my computer or while I’m in line at the grocery store.
That variety must help when you get stuck, too. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
As a child, I raised three rescue ducklings in my bedroom. Let me tell you, they smelled BAD.
This begs the question - why?
The first two ducks I believe my mom brought me due to a ravaged nest, but I was young and didn't ask questions. I just raised them until they were big enough to go out to a farm. The third was rejected by the mother. The ducks were easier to care for than the dozen of songbirds. Tree guys had to cut old trees on our street that were tearing up the sidewalks. We asked them to save the one cardinal nest in our tree. They brought us all the babies from the whole street. I had cardinals, starlings, robins, two that were brownish grey and I have no idea what they were. Some ate milk soaked bread. Others would only eat squished bugs. I had to hunt for spiders and worms to feed those little dudes.
Loud and messy I am sure, but also a blessing. Boys couldn't terrorize you with worms! Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I didn’t have a favorite. I was, and still am, a voracious reader. I did love The Saddle Club and The Boxcar Children, as well as The Stinky Cheese Man, Calvin and Hobbs, and any illustrations that showed texture. Some pages you just wanted to reach into and touch.
Although originally scheduled to release this week, since it's been pushed back for eight weeks we get to offer a sneak peek. What was your inspiration for She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch?
On International Woman's Day, March 8, 2018, my agent Rebecca Angus retweeted a fact about the elephant females spending their whole lives with one family unit. She said if I wanted to write that story, she’d be the happiest agent ever.
I had already done a boat load of research on African Elephants for a chapter book (that I still haven’t written) and I had an instant AH HA moment. I knew I could make this a picture book.
Talk about serendipity! Is there something you want your readers to know about She Leads?
She Leads follows the very real world of the wild African Elephant. This includes everything from playful youngsters to loss. Beautiful illustrations bring these majestic animals to life and are delicate in dealing with the circle of life. She Leads also has an underlying message of girl power and reminds readers that every great leader started small.
I love that you didn't sugar coat their lives and that message. How long did it take She Leads to go from idea to publication?
I started working on She Leads almost immediately, March 8, 2018.
I sent the manuscript to my agent on April 16th.
We sent it out on an exclusive first, then did our first round of submissions on August 3rd. It was a Friday.
The following Tuesday we had interest, then ultimately two offers.
Contract was signed on Sept 14th, 2018
She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch is officially published on May 26th, 2020.
Super fast. Just over two years from idea to book-in-hand.
Man, when it's meant to be, it all falls into place. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (either as a child or now as a writer.)
I’d have to say nature is my greatest inspiration. I was that kid who would wander the woods, sit and watch a baby bird learning to fly, climb trees just to see how far I could see (that stopped after I fell out of one), and who rescued injured or orphaned bunnies, birds, and turtles. Nature is amazing and there is always something new to notice, or learn, or discover.
I have to agree; nature is phenomenal. Was She Leads easier, or harder, to write than Odd Animals ABC’s? Why?
She Leads was the easiest book I’ve ever written. It flowed quickly and easily. Maybe because I already had done so much research that I didn’t have to keep stopping while drafting.
Odd Animal ABC’s was hard! I had to find less familiar animals for each letter, while being conscientious about the need for visual diversity. A ton of small grey animals wouldn’t be as appealing as a scarlet ibis, or a rainbow Quetzal, or all the spots and stripes and shapes that nature has to offer. So I had to be sure to have large and small; mammals, reptiles, and birds; and different colors/visual appeal. Oh, and since I had them all walking – no fish.
You definitely set yourself quite the challenge! Which was the hardest part, writing the concise text or the sidebar material in She Leads?
Text © June Smalls, 2020. Image © Yumi Shimokawara, 2020
The hardest part was not being preachy. I wanted so badly to say, “Save these Amazing, Intelligent, Brave, Beautiful creatures!! Stop Poachers! Never buy ivory products!” But that would have been me stepping into the story.
I had to let the facts show that these are amazing, intelligent, brave, and beautiful creatures and hope that these young readers grow up with an appreciation for the natural wonders of the world.
Personally, I think you succeeded. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
I always have multiple manuscripts going. I have a magical chapter book series that I’m loving as well as some humorous picture books and I just finished two more lyrical nonfiction picture books.
All of these sound enticing; We'll have to keep our eyes open for them. Is there anything about writing or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or maybe something you are glad you hadn’t known at the time?
I both wish I knew that everything in publishing took FOREVER and at the same time, I’m glad I got the writing bug before any grey clouds could rain on my parade.
Heading into your second book release, and associated readings and school visits, do you have any advice for those just learning their book is to be published? (What will you do/try differently this time?)
I’ve grown in writing, presenting, and overall confidence during this writing journey. I’m now more comfortable reaching out, sending that email, and speaking publicly. It is a part of this business and something you’ll need to work on at some point. Marketing is part of the package. That includes school visits, interviews (like this one), speaking with teachers, librarians and book sellers, as well as other opportunities like teaching workshops.
Additional advice is to find other avenues where your book may be a good fit.
Craft book? – Craft Fair!
Elephant book? – The Zoo!
Historical? – Museums!
Cupcakes? – Bakery!
Don’t be afraid to reach out and say, “Hey, I have this book and this idea for an event.”
Awesome advice, thanks. What is your favorite animal? Why?
TURTLES! They are so underrated. They are more athletic than you’d think, they have all sorts of different shell types/patterns/textures, you can find them on land or in the water, they are in all sorts of mythology from many cultures, and I swam with sea turtles once and it was everything!
Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me June. It was a pleasure getting to know you.
Be sure to stop back on Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post early sneak peek at She Leads.
To find out more about June Smalls, or get in touch with her: