Today I get to share a picture book debut from a talented new author. I love when I get to do that!
Joana Pastro always wanted to be an artist of some sort. So, she became an architect. But once her first child was born, all the visits to the library, and the countless story times made Joana start dreaming of becoming a children’s book author. After a lot of reading, writing and revising, her dream is coming true. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, will be published by Boyds Mills Press, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane TOMORROW!! Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa will be published by Scholastic in Fall/2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana now lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children and a rambunctious Morkie. You can find her on Twitter, on Instagram, or learn more about her at her website.
“Lillybelle: a Damsel NOT in Distress” is a wonderful twisted fairy tale (and you know how much I love those). There are witches, giants, and ogres, as well as a school for damsels. Trust me when I say that this is NOT a story you will want to miss. It’s a story with a strong female that still has a TON of fun with the genre.
Me: You were an architect and have long dreamed of being an artist. What is it then that drew you to writing picture books? Any hopes of one day illustrating them?
Joana: I haven’t worked with architecture since my second child was born. By the time I was ready to go back to work, I realized I didn’t want an office job. Meanwhile, the story time at the library and bedtime reading were a big part of our routine. I remember being mesmerized by those amazing picture books. True works of art. I loved seeing how the subtle messages deeply touched the kids. I remember one night in particular thinking, Wow, this is awesome! I wish I could do this for a living!
But interestingly enough, it took me a while to even consider that I could be a writer. I guess I thought it was too presumptuous. I had no formal writing education; how could I even consider it? I really took my time embarking on this journey. LOL. I took years simply appreciating those books, until one day I started writing down ideas. Finally I decided to start writing twice a week, which turned to every other day, and then every day. However, the first book I wrote (in English) was a middle grade novel. Transitioning to picture books happened almost by chance when I wrote a short story for a magazine.
I’d love to be an illustrator, but I’d have a lot to learn. I’ve been so busy, I can’t imagine finding the time to focus on it right now. But who knows, maybe one day!
Me: I LOVE a good fairy tale adaptation. While this isn’t a revision of any specific story, it is certainly a wonderful revision of some of the tropes. What inspired this story? Were you like LillyBelle when you were younger?
Joana: This story started from a call from submissions from Cricket Magazine. The subject was Knights and Castles. A bit of research and brainstorming got me to the phrase “damsel in distress” and adding the “not” happened immediately. I loved the ring of it and the girl power aspect.
Yes, I was a lot like LillyBelle. Growing up I was always extremely friendly and diplomatic, and full of ideas. Being the oldest cousin put me in a leadership position, so the younger ones (almost) always bought into my ideas. For some time we had a club where we had a lot of fun. On the other hand, I wasn’t as outspoken as LillyBelle. That’s something I still need to work on.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Joana: The surprise in writing this story was that after years thinking I could never write a picture book, I realized that I could learn. Picture books had been a big mystery to me. I didn’t understand the process, the collaboration between author and illustrator, or the rules. Like I mentioned before, it started as a short story. I wrote it in one sitting, and it was a pretty painless process. Beginners luck! Of course, I revised it many times, and cut a lot of words. The version being published is draft 56.
Me: Wow! That’s impressive. What does your writing process look like?
Joana: LillyBelle pretty much poured out of me, but that doesn’t happen often!
I’m constantly brainstorming ideas. I will doodle and scribble a lot during this process and research. I love research, and I’ll go deep into that rabbit hole even for a fiction manuscript. Once I settle on a premise, I start working on the plot and actually writing the story. Typically, my work day starts when my kids are off to school (these days with virtual learning, school is aka their bedrooms!) I try to write the whole story in one sitting which means my first draft is usually horrendous! I’ll print the latest draft and carry it around on a clipboard everywhere I go, around the house, in the car, anywhere. You never know when the solution for that plot problem might hit you!
Me: I thought you had an interesting assortment of skills being taught to damsels: baking, singing, and manners. If you could teach any skill to young girls today, what skill would you teach? Why?
Joana: I could say dancing, baking, making crafts, but I think young girls—any child really—would benefit from Exploring and Expressing Creativity Without Fear 101. There’s a certain age when kids start worrying too much about making mistakes. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that never happened? Hmmm… Now that I’m thinking about it, it’d make a great class for adults too! I think I’d be the first to enroll.
Me: That sounds like a great class! The illustrations by Jhon Ortiz are wonderful. I especially loved the fresh interpretations of the staple characters (witches, giants, and ogres) and the color palette. Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Joana: A big one for me was that LillyBelle looks a lot like my daughter! It was something I had always hoped for, but never mentioned, seeing that LillyBelle had dark brown curly hair made my heart sing! I’ve mentioned that LillyBelle has a lot of me, but I’d say, even more of my daughter who never shies away from speaking her mind.
Me: Any advice for other picture book writers?
Joana: Don’t think you can do it alone.
If you want to embark on this career, join SCBWI right away. Find a community. Find a critique group. Listen to feedback. Be humble!
I think we all hope for a meteoric career, but you must learn to walk before you can run. It’s important to learn the craft, make (great) friends, and enjoy the camaraderie that only those who are on the same journey can provide. Develop patience and a thick skin. You’ll need it!
Work hard, don’t give up. It’ll be worth it!
Wow, excellent advice. Dear readers, if you haven’t yet had a chance to track this book down, I highly recommend it. It’s full of laughs, fairy tale standards gone awry, and a great lead character.