The Importance of Girl-Empowering Stories: An Interview with Joana Pastro

I love a good story about girls kicking butt, taking charge, and standing up for themselves. That’s just one of the reasons why I’m so excited about Joana Pastro’s debut picture book, LillyBelle, A Damsel NOT in Distress, out from Boyds Mills Press later this month. Read on to learn more!

LL: Welcome, Joana! Tell us more about LillyBelle. What inspired you to write this story?

JP: Thanks for having me, Laura! The spark for this story happened when I came upon the phrase “damsel in distress,” and immediately added the word “not” to it. One inspiration for this story was my daughter, who at the time was very much into fairy tales and princesses, but also into toy cars, superheroes, and dinosaurs! One of her strongest traits since she was a baby was being extremely friendly—always smiling—and a constant social butterfly. She’s very confident, knows how to stand up for herself, and never misses the opportunity to ask questions. She always has a question to ask!

LL: I love that your daughter is so sure of herself! She sounds like a great inspiration.

Not so much recently, but just a few years ago I was seeing agents asking for more “boy” books. Can we talk for a minute about how girl-empowering stories are valuable for all children?

JP: Picture books in general help young children develop their worldview and their identity. When the main character is a girl, it shows girls that they can be and do whatever they want. It shows girls are as capable and important as boys. It empowers them and helps build confidence throughout life.

One of the most harmful fairy tale tropes is the one that says females are fragile and need to be cared for, helped or rescued (usually) by a man. This image stays in girls’ subconscious, destroys their self-esteem and makes them feel inferior. On the other hand, it also reinforces the ideas that a boy can’t express emotions, unless it’s anger. And that is also harmful to their self-esteem and well-being.

When boys read about girls, it shows them that they are equally important. It reinforces that girls deserve respect and that everyone can be confident, sensitive, and strong. This creates an understanding that breaks those harmful stereotypes and creates a better dynamic between boys and girls.

LL: What are some of your favorite girl-empowering books that every parent should add to their child’s bookshelf?

JP: There are so many wonderful girl-empowering books out there! These are just a few: INVENT-A-PET by Vicky Fang, JUST LIKE ME by Vanessa Brantley Newton, DRESS LIKE A GIRL by Patricia Toht, GRACE FOR PRESIDENT by Kelly DiPuchio, ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER by Andrea Beaty, THE GARDENER by Sarah Stewart and NOT QUITE SNOW WHITE by Ashley Franklin. For non-fiction, I’ll suggest QUEEN OF PHYSICS: HOW WU CHIEN SHIUNG HELPED UNLOCK THE SECRETS OF THE ATOM by Teresa Robeson, WOOD, WIRE, WINGS: EMMA LILLIAN TODD INVENTS THE AIRPLANE by Kirsten W. Larson, THE VOICE THAT WON THE VOTE by Elisa Boxer, and BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST by Lindsay H. Metcalf.

LL: Okay, I start my holiday shopping early, so hold on a sec while I jot down these titles…

Some of the things I love about LillyBelle are that she’s clever, strong, and loves being fancy! Being a tough and loving tea parties don’t have to be mutually-exclusive. Were you consciously thinking of these various aspects of LillyBelle’s personality when creating her character?

JP: I was! It still upsets me when I see kids being labeled. Kids can be and can like anything. I want them to know that. Remember when that little girl who dressed as a hot dog stood apart from others dressed as princesses all around her, and it was all over the news?  I loved that girl’s spirit so much, and I was bothered by the negative comments toward the girls who were dressed as a princess. So, there we were, praising this little girl for being true to herself by wearing an unexpected costume, but at the same time shaming the ones who chose to be princesses. My daughter was about five at the time and loved dressing up as princesses, but also as Captain America, a dinosaur, and a pirate. And if she only wanted to be a princess, that’d be fine too. I don’t want any child, boy or girl, being shamed for being feminine, or liking activities typically labeled feminine. It reinforces the stereotype that “girl” interests are less important than “boy” interests. It brings us back to reinforcing the notion that a boy is above learning or reading about girls’ experiences.

LL: Speaking as a parent of two tutu- and tiara-loving kiddos, I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s end with a fun question. What did you do to celebrate when you got the news that LillyBelle was being published?

JP: I hung up the phone and ran outside where my oldest son was hanging out with his friends, and told them a publisher was buying my book. So dorky!

That night we popped champagne and here’s a fun fact—the book was sold on a Thursday and I had bought the champagne that Monday after hearing how many friends keep one in their fridge for good luck. It worked pretty fast for that first book! I’ve kept a bottle in my fridge ever since. The current one has been there for over a year now. Hopefully we’ll get to pop it soon!

LL: Yes, cheers to that! Thanks so much for joining us today, Joana. How can readers connect with you, and where can they pre-order LillyBelle?

JP: I love connecting with fellow book lovers! Visit me at, on Instagram @joanapastro, and on twitter @jopastro. LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS can be pre-ordered anywhere books are sold.

Joana Pastro

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, on October 20, 2020. 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 @jopastro, Instagram on @joanapastro, on her website at

If you enjoy my blog, you can connect with me (Laura) on Twitter and Instagram!

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