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The Picture Book Buzz

The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with June Smalls

June 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 This Cat Loves That!: A Cat Book for Kids (2020), She Leads (2020), Odd Animal ABC’s (2019), and We Need Prairie Dogs (2019).

For additional information on June, see our earlier interview (here).

Her newest picture book, He Leads: Mountain Gorilla, the Gentle Giant, releases tomorrow!

June, thank you so much for stopping back by to talk about your newest book and your writing.

Thank you for having me back, Maria! Always a pleasure chatting with you.

Did you find anything particularly helpful in keeping you inspired and writing these past couple of years?

The past few years were hard, and I had a few dry spells, but mostly allowing myself to escape into good books to read just for fun and daydreaming. It seems simple, but those uninterrupted games of ‘what if’ in my mind help me think of stories and practice, even if I’m not actively writing.

Otherwise, it was just Butt In Chair and plugging along. And not giving myself a hard time when I wasn’t producing. Bullying myself never works out.

Staying playful and understanding with ourselves can be a lot harder than it sounds. But definitely a worthwhile endeavor. What was your inspiration for He Leads: Mountain Gorilla, the Gentle Giant?

As soon as I wrote She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch, I started thinking of ‘he, she, they’ type ideas. When chatting with the editor it started with just a general pitch to see if they’d be interested in making this a series.

Then, I had to choose a male led group of animals. There are many to choose from. Kangaroos, chimps, wild turkeys. But I wanted this series to highlight both, natural leaders, and point out things that you may not realize.

The gorilla was a great example of raw power, but also gentleness. They are loaded with muscle and have huge canine teeth, but they are herbivores. They are hard to study because they silently avoid confrontation in their mountain forests.

They were just right to show off as the second part of the series.

I'm so glad you chose the gorilla! They sure could use our understanding and protection. How many revisions did He Leads take from first draft to publication? Was this longer or similar to the number of revisions and time it took to create She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch?

I don’t think any book will ever flow onto the page as easily as She Leads did for me.

But since I already had a basic formula that I had to follow for the structure (which was challenging at first since I’m a pantster and I like to see where a story takes me) it only took a few drafts before I submitted, and edits were minimal.

Interesting how a formula can be both helpful and constraining. And what was the toughest aspect of researching and/or writing He Leads?

Like I mentioned, having to follow a similar structure to She Leads was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t want it to be so similar that it was just cutting out the word elephant and adding in gorilla, but I needed to follow that pacing, and have similar style facts of their size, habits, life cycle etc. Making it a book unto itself was harder than I anticipated.

I've heard that sequels can be harder, though not having to re-invent the wheel should have some benefits. When you first saw Yumi Shimokawara’s illustrations in He Leads, did anything surprise, amaze, or delight you? Which is your favorite spread?

Text © June Smalls, 2022. Image © Yumi Shimokawara, 2022.

Everything she does is amazing and takes my breath away. The gorilla’s eyes seem to look right at you from the cover. My absolute favorite spread is where we are talking about the silverback being gentle and shy. Her use of color and negative space creating the plant life is just outstanding! I’m planning to get this framed for my office.

That image is so stunning! Is there something you want your readers to know about He Leads?

The whole leads series is a great jumping off point for discussions of what makes a good leader, and He Leads shows that power doesn’t mean bullying, but protecting. Gorillas are more complex than this book can show. They have their own dramas, dangers, and dynamics that would take years to delve into fully. But He Leads is a great introduction to a fascinating endangered species.

It is such a touching and engaging book that it is sure to spur readers to learn more about gorillas. Which was the hardest part, writing the concise text or the sidebar material in He Leads? Especially when you deal with the reason another silver back steps up to lead the troupe.

It is difficult to be honest and scientific while still being sensitive to a younger reader. I never talk down to a child, but there is a balance of what works properly.

Male silverbacks either “retire” and become a troop outlier when they get too old or weak, or they die whether that is from old age, or from poachers, predators, or younger rivals.

New dominant silverbacks often kill the babies in the troop so the females will be ready to breed again. Then the new silverback gets his own genetics passed on in the new generation I had to be incredibly vague in the book about this harsh aspect of gorilla society.

Oh, I can imagine the work it took to walk that particular tightrope. Are there any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?

They Lead: The Wolf Pack is next in the series and is about the gray wolf and how the breeding pair (aka the alphas) lead the pack. It is about teamwork, sharing responsibilities, and letting go when a young wolf leaves to create their own pack.

I also have a sound novelty book, Hear Them Roar, that will be out in 2023 highlighting endangered animals from around the world and you get to hear their cries, squeaks, booms, songs, and, of course, roars.

I am so excited to see the covers for these books! And to read them, of course. What is your favorite National Park or Forest, regional park, or city park? Or the one you’re longing to visit. Why?

I don’t know that I have a favorite. I did get to meet a black bear face to face in the Shenandoah National Park and that was both terrifying and amazing. He just took a look at me and my husband and lumbered away like we were no more interesting than any of the trees. But I shook!

I’ve always wanted to go west and see the Grand Canyon and Old Faithfull since I’ve read about them so many times.

I hope you get to visit these parks. Maybe a trip to Yellowstone could be a tie-in for the release of They Lead? Thank you so much for coming by to talk with me June. It was a pleasure spending time with you again.

Thanks again for having me!

Be sure to come back Friday for the Perfect Picture Book #PPBF post on He Leads: Mountain Gorilla, the Gentle Giant,

To find out more about June Smalls, or contact her:


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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