East Tennessee twin sisters write children's books together

Oct. 16, 2013 @ 12:49 PM

Like any kid, Mercedes James is fond of miniature golf. Also soup, bubbles and hugs.

“Mercedes is a 6-year-old going through her problem-solving phase,” said Seymour resident Thelma Leigh Hartigan. “All little kids do that.”

Mercedes is the heroine of “Mercedes James: Shrugs, Hugs and Other Valuable Things,” a new children’s book by Hartigan and her twin sister, Wilma Jean Valentine, with art by Cotton Tucker. Together the sisters write under the pen name Jean Leigh Claudette.

“She’s the idea person,” said Hartigan of Valentine, who lives near Wartburg. “I drive the process.”

This is the sisters’ second “Mercedes James” title. The first, published last year, is “Mercedes James On Birdies, Mice, Cookies and Clocks.”

“Both Mercedes James books are for younger readers, anywhere from being able to read on up to about 7 or 8,” Hartigan said.

The sisters began collaborating on books in 2010. “My sister lost her husband in 2006, and in 2007 she was diagnosed with cancer,” Hartigan said. “I was in (information technology) at TVA, and I decided to retire so she and I could be together. We were both at a kind of crossroads.”

Then Valentine called Hartigan. “She said, ‘Guess what, I’m going to write children’s books, and I’ve got a great idea,’” Hartigan recalled.

The sisters had pursued writing before, Hartigan said, “but this was the first time we started with a vengeance.”

In 2011 the sisters came out with their first book, “The Classified Files Of Sweet William Farm.” “It’s about a secret-agent raccoon and his adventures with life on the farm,” Hartigan said. “His job is to protect the animals and people on the farm.” A second “Classified Files” book is due out in November.

Next year, the twins are set to release “Gracie Phizz, Private Detective.” “Gracie is an 11-year-old who’s deep into problem-solving,” Hartigan said. “It’s a chapter book for ages 8 to 13 or 14. It’s more along the lines of Nancy Drew, a mystery-type story for older kids.”

The Jean Leigh Claudette books are put out by Tate, an Oklahoma-based Christian publisher.

“When I started to search for a publisher, I wanted someone we could be proud of and happy with,” Hartigan recalled. “When I came across Tate, I saw that their mission statement said they were a family publisher, not interested in adult language, coarse language. I thought, ‘We have a match.’ I submitted the book, and they accepted it.”

Kids have more and more entertainment options, but Hartigan believes books offer them something unique.

“It’s a special relationship,” she said. “It can’t be duplicated with television or electronic games, or a Kindle or Nook. There’s something about the feel, touch and smell of a book, and turning the pages, and sticking the bookmark in, and getting familiar with the characters, and being disappointed when a chapter or book ends.”

Reading books is “a marvelous process,” Hartigan said. “Turning the imagination loose with the printed page, it’s amazing.”

kburns@themountainpress.com