There’s been some recent buzz in the kidlit community about fresh takes on nonfiction picture books. Enter, stage right: author June Smalls! Her newest book, She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch, combines lyrical language with fact-filled sidebars, while her debut, Odd Animal ABC’s (out last year), fused an alphabet concept book with introductions to real, unusual animals.
LL: Welcome, June! Let’s start by talking about She Leads. I’d love to hear more about what inspired you to write this book.
JS: Thank you for having me, Laura. As you can tell, I love animals. I had done research on elephants for a totally separate book, but on International Women’s Day my agent retweeted an elephant fact and said she’d be happy if I wrote about them. I had an Ah Ha! Moment, and knew I could take what I learned and put it into a picture book.
LL: One of the things I love most about She Leads is the sparse text. I’m sure you have great tips about making every word count, as well as leaving room for the illustrator.
JS: Trust your illustrator and trust your reader. They can fill in the blanks. That being said, She Leads has a lyrical primary story. When thinking about a poetic pacing, it feels easier keeping it uncomplicated.
Simple text is like a stream gently carrying a paper boat to its destination. That tiny craft would be destroyed if you used a firehose.
LL: What a great metaphor! In addition to the gorgeous lyrical language, you use sidebars to share educational elephant facts. Give us your best sidebar tips: what should they include, and how should we format sidebars in picture book manuscripts?
JS: Sidebars can be so many things: bars, bubbles, swirling texts. They are just another tool to engage your readers, and what they include or how they are set up is ruled by what your subject is, and how it helps your story progress.
Sidebars aren’t part of the story line, but work in tandem with it. For example, in She Leads, when the elephant matriarch “shows them where to find food”, the side bar talks about what elephants eat, how much an elephant can eat per day, and how far they will travel to find food. So, there is nothing random with the sidebar facts. They deepen your story.
LL: I know you do a lot of research for your books, and I’d love to hear more about your research process.
JS: My research process varies. I start with watching videos and reading articles, from reliable sources, only writing down simple facts or things to remind me what to research in depth later. I like to just absorb the information, since I’m not sure what direction I’m going to take it.
Then I start digging in and I work on my bibliography as I go. I learned this the hard way!
When researching elephants for a chapter book (that I still haven’t written), I drove to a zoo and met with an elephant caretaker. I got to touch an elephant and he answered about a bajillion questions. Then I got to hang around the zoo for the rest of the day, which is no hardship.
When I finished writing, I was concerned that most of my resources were more than a few years old. So, I reached out to a scientist, and she put me in touch with an elephant trust in Africa. They vetted my work to make sure my manuscript was as accurate as I could possibly make it before we sent it to editors.
LL: That’s incredible that you were able to get up close and personal with your subject, and also speak with elephant experts to ensure accuracy.
Okay, switching gears for a bit: let’s chat about your debut, Odd Animal ABC’s, which was published last year. One of the things I love about Odd Animals is that it’s a concept book (alphabet) and a fictional story, but it also includes non-fiction elements (the animals). Tell us more about fusing fiction with nonfiction.
JS: I loved working on Odd Animal ABC’s. I knew that kids are open to learning new and weird and wonderful things, and the concept book was the perfect format. We’ve all met that one kid in first grade who can recite the scientific names of dinosaurs or name twenty species of sharks. I wrote this for them.
I spent a long time figuring out which animals to choose. There had to be a variety of color, size, mammals/birds/reptiles/marsupials, etc. There were days where, while watching tv, each family member was on their phones looking up cool animals and arguing over which was cooler.
In some cases I couldn’t choose just one animal, so a few letters introduce two amazing and odd creatures.
LL: On that note, let’s wrap up with a fun question. If you had to choose, which odd animal is your favorite, and why?
JS: My favorite Odd Animal is the Fossa, the largest predator on Madagascar. We still don’t know much about them. They can run and leap through the trees hunting lemurs with the agility of a squirrel or monkey, and they can even run face-down down a tree truck with their back feet turned around like a squirrel. They look like a cat, but are more closely related to a mongoose. So, this weird monkey-squirrel-cat-mongoose is just too cool not to love.
Thanks again for having me!
LL: Thank YOU, June!
Readers, be sure to preorder She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch & connect with June on social media!
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 hubby, The Kid, and an ever-growing assortment of animals.