March 23, 2022

Birth Stories for Books: HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT, by June Smalls

Hello readers! I'm delighted to share another insightful and informative Birth Stories for Books interview. Today's guest is June Smalls, author of HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT (illustrated by Yumi Shimokawara, Familius, March, 2022). 

by June Smalls and Yumi Shimokawara

Dawn Prochovnic: Welcome to the blog, June. I’m really looking forward to the upcoming release of your latest picture book, HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT.

In a recent article on the Familius blog you shared the inspiration behind your earlier book, SHE LEADS: The Elephant Matriarch. I’d love to hear how the idea for this new book, HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT, came to be. 

June Smalls: After writing SHE LEADS, it was easy to start thinking of he, she, and they. It took me a while to land on just the right animal to focus on. I wanted this to be more than just a series of animal facts. I wanted this to be a series about leadership and what that means. These natural leaders in the animal kingdom that are successful are smart, strong, protective of those that are younger and weaker, and they are selfless.

When looking up how silverbacks could be shy, gentle, and patient in addition to their awesome power and athleticism, I knew I’d found a great feature.

THEY LEAD will be the third in the series and focuses on the teamwork of the gray wolf breeding pair (what most people know as the alpha pair).

DP: What a compelling description of this new book (and the series). 

I’d also like to hear more about the process and timeframe between your initial idea for this new book and the manuscript that was formulated fully enough to submit to your editor. For SHE LEADS, it sounds like you had conducted so much prior research on elephants, that the actual writing process for the book was fairly smooth once you formulated a book structure. How did the process compare with this new book, given there was a completely new animal to research and write about?

JS: This timeframe will seem unbelievable, but I pitched the idea in March of 2020. Familius said they’d be open to seeing it. I sent the manuscript in April and had a contract in May.

DP. Youza! Yes, that timeframe DOES seem unbelievable! 

JS: You don’t want to put too much into a sequel if the publisher may have zero interest. Though again, I did a good amount of research and had a very loose draft before even pitching the idea to see if it was feasible. So, I had a rough idea of what I’d pull from and where to find it.

It went very quickly since I already had a framework that I’d follow to keep it in line with SHE LEADS in tone, style, and pacing. This was the hardest of the series to write. I had to find the balance of staying with the framework without it just being a cut and paste, swapping out elephants for gorillas.

Interior Image: HE LEADS

Don’t think they all come this easy though. They did reject a separate pitch for this series.

DP: You win some, you lose some, as they say, right? Thick skin is definitely a big part of this business. 

Back to HE LEADS, when you compare one of your earliest drafts of this story to the version in the published book, what stands out for you in terms of what is most different? Likewise, is there anything in particular that stands out that was included in your earliest drafts and survived the revision process?

JS: Not a ton changed. Interestingly enough, we changed a number of things and then changed them back to the original text. Most changes were to add more information about the females of the troop rather than solely focusing on the male.

DP: Reflecting on the journey from idea to published book, is there any one moment along the way that you credit with opening the door for this particular story to find its way to publication? At what point did the idea for a series (SHE LEADS, HE LEADS, and next up, THEY LEAD: The Wolf Pack) materialize?

JS: This series started because of a fun fact about elephants shared on International Woman’s Day on twitter and it grew from there.

I’d done elephant research for another manuscript, so I was ready when that inspiration hit. Everything after that was organic growth. I don’t know that there was any one “ah ha” moment for the series. Just a hopeful, “Hey since SHE LEADS seems to be coming together so well, I have this idea about a silverback...”

DP: Way to take the LEAD on the new idea and turn it into another book deal!

When you compare the path to publication for this book to one of your other books outside this series (i.e. ODD ANIMAL ABC’s or THIS CAT LOVES THAT), what are some of the key similarities and differences in terms of the publication journeys for each? 

JS: HE LEADS was easier. For ODD ANIMAL ABC’S many folks wouldn’t even read the manuscript. ABC and other concept books can be a hard sell. I think I subbed that for a year or more before I received serious interest.

THIS CAT LOVES THAT was a work for hire book. It was difficult, not in the sales, since they sought me out, but in the guidelines that I had follow. Since they wanted it to be a book to help learning readers it needed certain sight words, I couldn’t use large vocabulary words, and we had to make sure that photos could be found that went with the text.

It was wonderful and fun challenge and looking at cat photos is never a hardship. Though I couldn’t have all the fun I may have with words and imagery if it had been my own idea.

DP: What a great recap of these different experiences. Thanks for that.

If you could go back in time, what would you tell your pre-published self? Or, said another way, what do you know now, that you wished you would have known a bit earlier?

JS: I always say I wish I knew how slow publishing is, but I’m also glad I didn’t really understand since it can be disheartening to know you have a great idea that you won’t be able to share with the world for YEARS even if it is already sold.

Patience is a must in the industry.

DP: Indeed!

Is there something you wish someone would ask you about your path to publication for HE LEADS that you haven’t had the opportunity to share yet? 

JS: I know some wonder about selling a series. The LEADS series was not a series from the initial idea, but a wonderful addition after the first book was created.

Many fun facts that I couldn’t use in the book are still stored for when I get to do school visits. Like how gassy the great beasts are from their diet of dense vegetation. 

DP: Speaking from the perspective of an official potty-humorist, I assure you, fun facts of that nature will be a big hit! 

Do you have anything you’d like to tell us about what you’re currently working on? 

JS: I am working on a fourth book in the series, though the series is evolving a bit. This book is about the honeybee and how hard they work as individuals rather than focusing on the queen.

There is a novelty sound book coming out in 2023 with Familius Publishing, HEAR THEM ROAR. Readers will get to learn about endangered animals from around the world and actually hear their calls, cries, songs, and roars.

DP: Those sound like very fun projects. I look forward to seeing them.

Thanks so much for sharing your Birth Story for HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT  with us, June!

Dear readers, I hope you will consider heading on over to Bookshop or your favorite local indie and getting yourself a copy of this beautiful book. Can't add another book to your own collection? Ask your local library (and/or your local Zoo) to include HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT in their collection and/or share this post with a friend. 


June Smalls is a children’s author of fiction and nonfiction including Odd Animal ABC’s and She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch. She is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and a lover of literature. She resides in Northern Virginia with her hubby, The Kid, and an ever-growing assortment of animals. 


Birth Stories for Books is an occasional feature of Dawn Babb Prochovnic's blog. Dawn is the author of multiple picture books including, Lucy's Blooms, Where Does a Cowgirl Go Potty?, Where Does a Pirate Go Potty?, and 16 books in the Story Time With Signs & Rhymes series. Dawn is a contributing author to the award-winning book, Oregon Reads Aloud, and a frequent presenter at schools, libraries, and educational conferences. Contact Dawn using the form at the left, or learn more at  

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