Sunday, February 14, 2021

Q&A with June Smalls


June Smalls is the author of the children's picture book She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch. Her other books include Odd Animal ABC's. She lives in Virginia.


Q: Why did you decide to write She Leads?


A: She Leads started as an idea for an older book, then transformed into a straight nonfiction idea for a picture book, before it demanded to be a more lyrical piece in a style I’ve never tried before.


The perfect inspiration came from a fact about female elephants living together that my agent shared with me on Twitter.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I dove into research for a separate book idea. I watched hours of National Geographic, checked out a ton of books at my library, and even drove to a zoo to speak with an elephant keeper.


Finally, I had my manuscript vetted by a wonderful person at the Amboseli Elephant Trust, to be sure I had the most up to date information before sending it to publishers.


I was surprised by a number of things. My favorite cool fact is that their trunk has no bones, all of that power and dexterity comes from muscle. The only thing humans have that can compare is our tongue.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, "This fascinating, fact-filled look at an awesome elephant matriarch shepherding her family will fill readers with wonder and, not so coincidentally, will likely inspire human girls to feel empowered about their own leadership abilities." What do you hope kids take away from the book?


A: I want kids to see that there are many types of families. For elephants, the young are raised by mothers, aunts, grandmothers, etc. I also want them to see what makes a good leader. The Matriarch isn’t the biggest or the fastest, but the wise caretaker with the knowledge to keep her family safe, healthy, and happy.


Most importantly, I want kids to see that every great leader starts out small and helpless, but with great potential to grow, learn, and ultimately to lead.


Q: What do you think Yumi Shimokawara's illustrations add to the book?


A: Yumi’s art adds EVERYTHING. She kept the art simple, to focus on the elephants. Her realistic art makes you want to reach out and touch that rough elephant skin. She uses color to convey mood. And how she handled the sad parts of the story are breathtaking.


I’m so happy she is working on the whole series. Just wait until you see what she does next.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: She Leads has become a series about natural leaders in the animal world. We are currently working on He Leads: The Gorilla Patriarch and They Lead: The Gray Wolf. Both are due in 2022.


I have a novelty book, Hear Them Roar, coming out with Familius also in 2022 about 14 endangered animals from around the globe. This is a sound book so the readers can hear the calls of animals like the Sumatran orangutan, Philippine eagle, Black Rhino, kakapo, and more.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Writers should be open to trying new things. Experiment with styles and topics. When I started writing I never planned to write nonfiction. I’ve grown technically and am so happy with how trying new styles helped me find what fits a specific story.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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