Sisters Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie wasted no time placing their work after teaming up in 2014 to write a picture book. Within two years the authors sold six picture book projects to three publishers, and the first two are launching this spring.

Today, Albert Whitman releases I Am Famous, illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, starring self-designated celebrity Kiely, who is stalked by the paparazzi (her parents); and due in April from Little Bee Books is Shark Nate-O, the tale of a shark-loving boy who overcomes his fear of swimming, featuring illustrations by Daniel Duncan.

Luebbe and Cattie, who are represented by Tracy Marchini at BookEnds Literary Agency, will publish two more titles with Albert Whitman in 2019: a follow-up to I Am Famous, titled I Used to Be Famous, in which Kiely, alas, must share the spotlight when her new sibling arrives, in the spring; and Operation Photobomb, focusing on jungle animals who get their paws on a tourist’s camera, in the fall. Due from Roaring Brook Press in spring 2020 is Conan the Librarian, which introduces a book lover who convinces his fellow barbarians that it’s okay to both raid and read. And rounding out the roster of projects the authors have under contract is a second, as yet unscheduled, picture book from Roaring Brook.

The sisters’ writing partnership had a serendipitous start. Luebbe, who owned a book and toy shop in suburban Atlanta from 2009–2012, tried her hand at penning a picture book after she shuttered her store. “As a bookseller and mother of three young boys, I was obsessed with reading children’s books, and became a self-described picture-book connoisseur,” Luebbe recalled. “When my husband took a job in South Carolina and we moved, I had to close the store, and I was devastated—I thought my life was over! But I decided to write a picture book, and sent the manuscript to Becky to see what she thought.”

Cattie, a division director at a marketing and creative staffing firm in Chicago who is five years younger than her sister, liked what Luebbe had written, and made some edits. “I thought the concept was really strong, but the manuscript needed more character development and a more concise storyline,” she recalled. When Luebbe read Cattie’s revisions, she immediately realized that she had a collaborator: “Becky had made enough changes to improve the story that I knew she should be co-author. I didn’t go into this venture expecting her to join me, but happily it happened by default!”

Though Luebbe acknowledged that the initial manuscript “went through 75 drafts and is still sitting in a drawer” and Cattie calls it “our albatross,” the writing experience established the sisters’ collaborative modus operandi. “Tara has a million new ideas a day, and usually comes up with a concept and will jot down the bones of a story,” explained Cattie. “Then we will email back and forth fleshing it out. Sometimes we jump on the phone and talk it through. When we do see each other in person, we try to take our strongest work-in-progress and clean it up together.”

Hitting Their Creative Stride—and Paying It Forward

The sisters’ divergent personalities also come into play as they collaborate. “Tara and I are opposites, so that is good for different story perspectives,” noted Cattie. “We question each other, but are happy to play around with different things before we get too bullish with one idea. Tara is the brains of the business, and her knowledge of children’s publishing is top-of-the line. She is the first-born and is definitely a Type A personality. I’m a bit more of a free spirit—more softhearted. And I’m always trying to keep up with her.”

“That’s a nice way of saying I’m anal!” quipped Luebbe, who said that, since she doesn’t work full-time outside of her home, “I have time to do a lot of the heavy lifting and background research to discover whether a book idea I have has been done before.”

Luebbe noted that incidents from her own life also fuel her creativity; her son Nate’s obsession with sharks and the fact that he began reading nonfiction and taking swimming lessons at the same time inspired Shark Nate-O, and a snippet from her husband’s past helped give Conan the Librarian its title, after she decided to write a story on the perennially popular theme of barbarians. “I was trying to see what barbarian rhymed with, and came up with librarian,” she explained. “My brain went to the best-known barbarian of all time, Conan, and thus Conan the Librarian. And then my husband told me that his high-school football coach, who was also the school librarian, was called Conan. So that sealed the deal for me!”

Luebbe and Cattie’s ingenuity and humor immediately impressed their editors, who have high hopes for the sisters’ books. Albert Whitman editor Eliza Swift called the heroine of I Am Famous and I Used to Be Famous “a very, very funny character,” and the writing “hysterical.” She added, “The stories have both a modern feeling and the evergreen theme of kids wanting to be the center of attention. That can be a tricky balance, but the authors make it work. They have so many great ideas—I think this is just the start of a really exciting career for them.”

At Little Bee, assistant editor Charlie Ilgunas, who edited Shark Nate-O, praised the spot-on humor of the character and the story, and remarked on the enthusiastic reception of the book at last month’s ALA Midwinter conference, where “many librarians told us that they know both kids and parents will love the book.”

Not surprisingly, librarians are also a target market for Conan the Librarian, noted Mekisha Telfer, associate editor at Roaring Brook, who is editing the picture book (acquired at auction in a two-book deal by Claire Dorsett, who has since left the company). “I think it’s a super cute premise that turns a classic character on its head,” said Telfer of the book’s appeal. “I like the fact that the story honors librarians, who do such important work. And I also like that it promotes individualism and standing out from the crowd, which can invite ridicule, but can also let you shine.”

As Luebbe and Cattie’s writing career takes off, the authors are reaching out to aspiring picture book writers and illustrators by sponsoring Writing with the Stars, a contest to win a free three-month mentorship with a published author or author-illustrator. Inspired by Luebbe’s experience being mentored by author Stacy McAnulty after winning a similar contest, the initiative (now in its second year) will award 16 mentorships this year with picture book creators, including McAnulty, Lindsay Ward, and Josh Funk.

“When I won my mentorship with Stacy, her only requirement was that I pay the experience forward, and this contest allows me to give back bigger than I could on my own,” said Luebbe. “We are so grateful for the overwhelming response from mentors donating their time and from applicants—this year more than 1,000 from all over the world. It is very rewarding.”

I Am Famous by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie, illus. by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (Mar.) ISBN 978-0-8075-3440-3

Shark Nate-O by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie, illus. by David Duncan. Little Bee, $17.99 (Apr.) ISBN 978-1-4998-0496-6