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Behind the Book: She Leads

Author June Smalls shares what inspired her to write the book She Leads: The Elephant Matriarch. Read along to learn more about the book’s journey from an agent’s suggestion to the beautiful picture book about elephant life cycles.


When it comes to writing, knowledge is never a waste and practice builds you into a better version of yourself. When I first wanted to write about elephants, I was thinking of a book in a chapter book series. I did research, sketched out some notes, but could never find a way to make that story work.

Fast forward a year or so to International Women’s Day, when my agent shared an elephant fact and said she’d love an elephant book. I had tons of elephant knowledge. I’d even driven to a zoo and met with a zookeeper and an elephant. I got to touch her ear and see what a personality she had. But I still didn’t know what to write. 

I wanted to write about the matriarch, and how strong and amazing she was, and how she leads the herd (which later I learned, is more accurately called a family unit). Boom. SHE LEADS. I knew it was my title. It was perfect. Now how do I want to convey all the cool facts? She Leads felt lyrical and smooth in my head, but I wanted to teach as well as make something lovely.


Thanks to more previous knowledge from a Highlights Retreat with Debbie Ohi and Heidi Stemple, I had an idea to do both. Heidi had encouraged me on another manuscript to have fun with my nonfiction. A work-for-hire gig I had just completed had sidebars galore.

I now knew I wanted a lyrical storyline and nonfiction sidebars throughout. Since I’d done research previously, I was able to write a very solid draft of the primary storyline without having to stop repeatedly to check my facts. I found a happy balance of one sidebar per spread. Those sidebars took a little more work to ensure they were not too heavy and, more importantly, that they were accurate. 


That led me to another issue; many of my sources were older. At least five years or more. So, I reached out to scientists to see who I could get to vet my work. One scientist was kind enough to lead me to the Amboseli Elephant Trust. Someone there was willing to fact-check my manuscript. Primary sources are golden in nonfiction!

After my usual rounds with critique partners and then edits from elephant experts I was ready for my agent to send She Leads out into the world. There was interest from multiple parties, but Familius felt like the right fit. They understood my vision, they helped me improve it, and they found the perfect illustrator for She Leads in Yumi Shimokawara

The Final Book

It was a long, broken path. Combining knowledge from past research and projects helped me to step in a direction that I’d never tried before. It helped build me into a better writer. It helped me make a beautiful book. 

That book has grown as well. It will be a series on natural leaders with the addition of He Leads: The Gorilla Patriarch and They Lead: The Wolf Pack.

She Leads is now available everywhere books are sold.

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