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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Hacket


Updated: May 24, 2022

I am so excited to welcome June Smalls to The Backstory today to share all about her latest picture book, HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT (Familius, 2022) with illustrations by Yumi Shimokawara. Keep reading to learn about what inspires June and for your chance to win a signed copy or a manuscript critique.

Welcome to The Backstory and thank you for joining us and sharing the inspiration behind HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT.

First off, please tell us a little bit about your story.

HE LEADS is the second in my series on natural leaders in the animal kingdom. This follows the silverback gorilla as he leads, teaches, protects, and plays with his troop.

It has a short, lyrical primary story. Each spread has nonfiction sidebars for deeper reading. It touches on the full life cycle of gorillas and reminds readers that all big powerful leaders started off as tiny helpless babies.

What a wonderful premise! This sounds like it has something for everyone including a powerful lesson for young readers. And Yumi Shimokawara's illustrations are unbelievable.

What’s the story behind the story? What was your inspiration? Where did the idea come from?

After SHE LEADS: THE ELEPHANT MATRIARCH it was natural to start thinking of he, she, they and so on. So I researched a number of different male-led animals for book two.

When I was watching a video of a huge male gorilla gently and curiously poking at a young owl without causing any injury, and another big male holding a young female and showing her how to do chest beats, I was set on these amazing gentle giants.

Next is THEY LEAD about the teamwork in the gray wolf pack.

Your whole concept for this series is phenomenal and I love the subtle title changes from one book to the next. I can just imagine how fascinating it must have been researching potential subjects.

How did you approach going from this seed of an idea to what is now HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT? Was it something undeniable you had to write immediately or did you need to sit with this idea and let it grow for a while before it found its way to the page?

This was hard for me since I had to stick with a sort of format I created with the first book in the series. Usually I’m more of a free-writer and jump in however feels right. So having to match the structure kept me fenced in a bit initially.

I knew too that I wanted to highlight everything that makes them a good and multifaceted leader. I wanted these books to be a conversation starter about leadership, group/family dynamics, and how different styles work in different scenarios.

But, I had the idea and I dive in whenever I set my mind on an idea (even before I’d gotten the go ahead from the publisher).

I love your vision for what readers could take away from this series. They are important messages for students to hear and their presentation through animals makes them easily accessible.

Where do you tend to find your inspiration or your sparks for ideas?

Everywhere! ODD ANIMAL ABC’S was inspired by a picture at a yard sale, SHE LEADS was from a fun fact shared on Twitter. I’ve written books based on a cool name I heard (that was perfect for a chicken) and my husband sends me interesting animal articles he thinks I’ll like. Ideas are everywhere!

Thanks for sharing those little snippets of what has ignited your imagination. Inspiration is everywhere and I love that your husband is now on the hunt for the next great idea as well.

What books have been the most inspirational/impactful on your writing?

It is hard for me to pin down just a few. I’ve always been a voracious reader. Those picture books and chapter books that made me fall in love with reading and writing as a kid mattered, even those I can’t remember. Probably in more profound ways than I’ll ever truly realize.

Every book that made me think and feel, even after closing the cover, has added to my toolbox and goals. I have favorites in different areas, but everything I read, every class I attend, impacts my writing.

So true! And what a powerful notion to keep in mind. The words and stories we are presenting to children today have the potential to stick with them, inspire, and impact them for decades to come.

What are the must haves for your workspace? Tools? Inspiration? Reference materials?

I have an office set up at home with a nice L shaped desk so I can go back and forth between my computer and reference books. I like my headphones with music that has no words so I won’t be distracted. Lately it's been beautiful Celtic music. I have picture book art on the walls.

But, I’ll work and write anywhere an idea hits. I’ve written lines on my arm in a dark movie theater, sat in a restaurant on my lunch break with a notebook, and researched things on my phone while getting an oil change. Any tools work if the inspiration is there.

I can just imagine you walking out of a movie theater with ideas scribbled on your arm. Too funny! I love your mentality of seizing the inspiration whenever it strikes. We all know too well how easily ideas can slip away.

Any inspirational words of advice for aspiring authors?

Time is going to pass regardless. Get to writing now. Don’t put it off for a time that is ‘easier.’ You may not be able to do weekend getaways, but jotting ideas in a notebook gets you one step closer to your goals and can be squeezed in anywhere.

Stock up on those ten cent notebooks during back to school season at office supply retailers.

Write what gets you excited! If you sell, that book is going to be a big part of your life for the next few years. You’ll be rereading it a LOT.

Great advice! The last bit is a great reminder and motivation to create what we love instead of what we think an agent or editor wants.

Do you have any upcoming projects or news you would like to share with us?

Next year I’ll have a novelty sound book coming out. HEAR THEM ROAR is a nonfiction book about endangered animals. Illustrations by Becky Thorns.

In addition to the animal facts and art, you can hear the booms, squeaks, chitters, songs, howls, and of course, roars from endangered animals around the world. From small flightless birds to the biggest mammal on the planet. There is also information on what humans are doing to help each animal, so we end each section with hope.

THEY LEAD: THE WOLF PACK comes out after that and highlights the breeding pair (leaders of the pack, formerly called the alphas) and shows how teamwork helps keep their pack safe, healthy, and happy. Illustrations by Yumi Shimokawara.

Congratulations on your forthcoming books. They both sound incredible! The added sound to HEAR THEM ROAR will take an already enticing topic and make it irresistible for young children and THEY LEAD sounds like the perfect next book in your series. I can't wait to read them.

Where can people connect more with you?

Find me, my books, and educators guides on

Twitter: @June_Smalls


Readers be sure to check out June's latest, HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT (Familius, 2022) with illustrations by Yumi Shimokawara.

Thank you so much for joining us and sharing all about how HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT came to be.

Thank you for having me on The Backstory! I’m honored to be a part of it.



June is generously offering one winner their choice of a signed copy of HE LEADS: MOUNTAIN GORILLA, THE GENTLE GIANT or a picture book manuscript critique of 1,000 words or less.

Ways to enter:

1. Retweet my tweet about this blog post. Additional entry for tagging friends!


2. Leave a comment on this post.


3. Post about this interview on FB/Instagram and tell me in the comments that you did.

Each method earns an extra entry!



June Smalls has been making up stories since she only had pets and stuffed animals to share them with. With her first poem published in first grade June got the writing bug and never quit.

June 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 family and an ever-growing assortment of animals.

When not writing June is researching, visiting zoos or aquariums, reading, or trying to convince her hubby they have room for just one more pet.



ANDREW HACKET always dreamed of writing picture books, but never believed it was possible. Then one day he thought, “I could. I should.” So he did (with a lot of hard work). And while he hopes no one swallows acorns as a result of his story, OLLIE, THE ACORN, AND THE MIGHTY IDEA (Page Street Kids, 2024), he does hope kids will be inspired to grow kindness in their communities and stand up for themselves — without eating anyone, of course.

Andrew lives in Holden, Massachusetts with his wife and three children, all of whom are very mighty.

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May 13, 2022

Great interview! All your books sound amazing June!


May 12, 2022

Congrats June I can hardly wait to read HE LEADS and all your upcoming books. i'm a huge animal lover.


May 12, 2022

Thanks Andrw and June! I love animal stories! Your stories are perfect for classroom libraries! Looking forward to reading about this Gentle Giant! :)

I'll be posting on FB and Instagram.


Carol Gordon Ekster
Carol Gordon Ekster
May 11, 2022

Great interview! Thanks for sharing news about these books that sound terrific! Congrats!


Reed Hilton-Eddy
Reed Hilton-Eddy
May 11, 2022

Love, love, love this concept! Great animal choices and wonderful message.

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