Friday, September 15, 2017

Nine Tips for a Successful Book Signing Event

Kathie Allen and Rhonda Gowler Green at Book Beat
August was a busy month for our SCBWI-MI authors and illustrators. Book Beat's 35th Anniversary Party was a day long event featuring authors and books of all genres for children through adults. PAL coordinator, Jodi McKay, organized two events at Barnes & Noble, one for younger readers and one for teens, and then moved on to planning a full day at the Kerrytown Book Festival.

Jodi will be here next week to share more about what goes on behind the scenes to plan these events, using Kerrytown as an example, but today, Janet Ruth Heller is here with tips for a successful book signing event. She's been doing signings since 2006 when her first book for children was published, and she participated in the Barnes & Noble event for young readers last month. Here are her tips:

1) Advance Planning
Because most organizers plan signing events months or years in advance, we writers and artists need to start early, doing research about local events and contacting venues to ask whether the staff members want us to participate. For example, many places have pre-Christmas/Chanukah book fairs and signings. Libraries and bookstores often present authors and illustrators reading their work to children on Saturday mornings or afternoons. We need to find out who coordinates these events and ask to be included.

2) Work Closely with the People Who Staff the Venue
If we are selected for a speaking engagement, we should find out all of the details. Here are some questions to ask:
How old are the children who come?
How long will I have to read my book and/or talk about it?
Am I the only visiting writer/artist, or are there others coming?
Will I have a microphone?
Will you announce the reading/signing over your public address system?
Is this event indoors or outdoors or both?
Will you provide a table and chairs for me, or do I need to bring these myself?

3) Practice How to Read Your Book Creatively
Although authors and artists are busy people, we need to find time to practice reading our work aloud in a way that gets the attention of children. Youngsters have trouble focusing and sitting still, so we should offer them a very entertaining presentation to keep their attention. If we get invited to participate on a panel discussion for adults, we need to prepare at least an outline of our major ideas and to practice our talk. We should make eye contact with every member of our audience and speak loudly enough to be heard.

Art activity from Shmulik Paints the Town by Lisa Rose
4) Bring a Craft or Other Activity for Children
Some writers bring an illustrated page from their books without any color so that youngsters can use crayons to fill in the picture. Because my book How the Moon Regained Her Shape has a scene in which the characters exchange gifts, including a beaded necklace, I often bring beads and nice strings for the children to make their own necklaces or bracelets. At some events, I have led the audience in singing some funny songs.

5) Cooperate with Other Authors or Illustrators at the Event
Group signing events can often draw a larger audience than an event featuring one person. For example, Jodi McKay of the SCBWI-Michigan chapter organized a signing at the Barnes & Noble in Brighton, Michigan, on Saturday, August 5, 2017. Kathie Allen, Deborah Aronson, Jack Cheng, Kim Childress, Jodi McKay, Amy Nielander, Jordan Scavone, Maria Dismondy, J. A. Eaton, and I participated. Of course, all eight of us told our friends and relatives about this event, which increased the number of people who came to the bookstore. Many customers stopped to look at one book and wound up purchasing books from the other writers and artists at the same table. Also, we SCBWI-MI members bought books from one another. I purchased six books for my great-nieces and -nephews from my colleagues.

6) Proudly Hawk Your Merchandise
My father was a businessman, and he taught me to be proud of good merchandise and to hawk it to potential customers. So when I go to signings, I boast, “I/ We have great books for children here!” Or I proclaim, “I’ve got an award-winning book about bullying!” These verbal appeals bring curious people over to a table to look at books.

Jordan J. Scavone
7) Make a Display Attractive
Authors and artists can draw people to their book tables by dressing up like characters in their books, bringing a large poster of the book cover, and using stands and other devices that display books attractively.

8) Bring Promotional Materials
I recommend that writers and artists also bring fliers, business cards, or bookmarks about their books to signings. Some people are not ready to purchase a book immediately, but they often order it later, using the information on my fliers. My handouts also have details about how to contact me for school visits and other speaking events. So one speaking event may result in several more engagements.

9) Personalize Your Autograph
Customers like writers and artists who find a way to personalize autographs. For example, Ruth McNally Barshaw draws sketches next to her autographs. I don’t have her artistic talent, but I try to write something about the child or adult who is purchasing my book, such as “I enjoyed meeting you and visiting your class at Amberly School today.” Such autographs make people feel special.

Janet Ruth Heller has taught literature, linguistics, creative writing, and women’s studies at various colleges. She has published the poetry books EXODUS, FOLK CONCERT, and TRAFFIC STOP; the scholarly book COLERIDGE, LAMB, HAZLITT AND THE READER OF DRAMA. Fictive Press published her middle-grade chapter book about sibling rivalry, THE PASSOVER SURPRISE (2015).  Her picture book about bullying, HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE (Arbordale, 2006), has won four national awards.. Learn more at

For more tips for successful author events, see these posts from SCBWI-MI members:
Breaking Out of Your Circle by Melanie Hooyenga
Jordan J. Scavone's Tips for a MightE Signing Event

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing good news to Patti Richards by September 25th to be included. Plus, take-aways from our fall conference, and a new Featured Illustrator!

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Grown-Up Version of What I Did This Summer, or How I Rediscovered My Writing Mojo

My first novel was published a year ago, and what followed was a whirlwind of interviews, blog posts, and multiple events every week, near and far - book signings, panel presentations, school and library visits, book clubs, conferences, and workshops. I appreciated every invitation and opportunity, and it was wonderful to connect with readers of all ages, librarians, teachers, and other authors. I pushed myself beyond my comfort zone, learned new skills, and expanded my circles. At the same time, I worked on freelance social work/writing jobs and revised another novel. My agent submitted it, we got feedback from editors, I revised again, my agent submitted again, and the rejections rolled in. Spring morphed into summer, and I completely ran out of steam. I had book marketing ideas that I had no desire to implement, and worst of all, I had lost my motivation to begin a new novel. The business of writing had sapped the joy from writing, and I needed to find a way to get it back. 

Here are three ways I reconnected with the joy of writing and refocused in the midst of continuing distractions. 

1. I took a one-day workshop.

On a lavender farm! Detroit Working Writers held a flash fiction workshop at Yule Love It Lavender Farm in Leonard, MI, about an hour north of Detroit. About 20 writers toured the gardens and gathered for lunch under a flowering arbor. Author Dorene O'Brien led the writing workshop, reading selections of flash fiction and guiding us through exercises. I'd been focused on novels for so many years, it was invigorating to experiment with these super short stories.

2. I took an online writing class. 

I signed up for a ten week online writing class with author Peter Markus. I met Peter last year through Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit where he's the senior writer-in-residence. He also teaches at Oakland University, but his summer class was informal and consisted of weekly writing assignments, readings, and email discussions. The pressure of publication was removed, and I gave myself permission to simply see what happened. Maybe this would lead me into a new novel, maybe not. At the very least, my writing repertoire would expand, and I'd have weekly deadlines to keep me focused. 

Lo and behold, it worked! Peter introduced me to short stories and authors that I never would have found on my own. He gave assignments, and I explored and took risks in my writing, stretching beyond my usual YA coming-of-age stories. I wrote poetry, random scenes, short stories, and even a weird and wild reimagined fairy tale that Peter suggested I submit to a literary journal. Ultimately, this was the writing that led to a breakthrough in my novel-in-progress which finally happened when I gave myself some time away. Which leads me to…

3. I took a writing retreat.

I had been talking about a writing retreat with my critique group ever since Ann Finkelstein wrote this post two years ago about her annual retreat. I finally chose a date in August, emailed my writing partners, and received an immediate YES from everyone. We stayed in a cottage in northern Michigan, and the weekend was a complete success. Here's why:

*Peer pressure 
Tracy and Susannah are teachers, and school was about to start. They both had novels well under way and very limited time to finish. Dawne was nearing completion of a new novel with the ending mapped out and in sight. These ladies were motivated to work. I was the only one floundering, trying to start a new novel. If I’d been away by myself, I'm sure I would have spent hours reading in the hammock.

We spent most of our time apart, working on our own projects in different areas of the house, inside and outside. (My daughter said, “So you’re really all up there in the same house, not talking to each other?” Yup.) Meals together were optional (if someone was on a writing roll, please keep going), but we found ourselves gathering in the kitchen at the same times, and we planned one dinner out at a restaurant. We discovered that these were helpful breaks to brainstorm about each of our stories, from titles to plot points to character goals and motivation. 

There’s something about leaving home, away from responsibilities and spending time in nature, that frees up space to think and dream and imagine and create. We took a walk every evening (and geeked out as we passed Hemingway’s Windemere cottage), but our minds were roaming too. I tend to write in my head on the road, so I chose to drive by myself to be on my own schedule. Sure enough, an hour into my drive home, the brainstorming gelled in my brain, and I solved the biggest stumbling block in the plot of my new novel! 

So, here we are at the start of a new school year and all kinds of busyness. You don’t have to escape out of town for a writing retreat - you could meet a friend for a writing date at a coffee shop or take a neighborhood walk. You don’t need to pay for a writing class - you could read a book on craft and do the recommend exercises, or attend the free monthly SCBWI-MI Shop Talks. I’m kicking off the fall season with a new commitment to balance the business and joy in my writing career. I'm glad we're on this journey together.

Kristin Bartley Lenz is a writer and social worker from metro-Detroit and co-edits the Mitten blog for SCBWI-MI. Her first young adult novel, THE ART OF HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO, was a Junior Library Guild Fall 2016 Selection and chosen for the 2017-2018 Great Lakes Great Books statewide literature program. Learn more at

Read another post about Writing Through a Slump by SCBWI-MI member Nick Atkins:

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success! Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing good news to Patti Richards by September 25th to be included.

Happening this weekend:

Saturday, Sept. 9, 10-12:00. SE Mitten Shop TalkDeb Gonzales presents "Building a Publishing Platform from the Ground Up."

Sunday, Sept. 10, 10-5:00. Kerrytown BookFest. 31 children's authors and illustrators signing books throughout the day at the SCBWI-MI booth #59-60, plus a panel of YA authors at 2:15.

Follow the SCBWI-MI Facebook page for the latest news about events and happenings around the state.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Janet Ruth Heller, Grammar Guru: Sentence Fragments in Fiction and Poetry for Children

Janet Ruth Heller is back for her second Grammar Guru post! In this ongoing column, she addresses common grammar problems and questions that she frequently encountered during her thirty-five years as a college professor of English literature, composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Here's Janet:          

Fragments are clauses or phrases that lack a subject, lack a verb, or lack both a subject and verb. Although most teachers ban sentence fragments in formal argumentative or informational writing, fragments add realism, develop characters, and create emphasis in fiction and poetry for children. However, overuse of fragments weakens literature.

Very young children often speak in short fragments. For example, in Judy Blume’s novel TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, two-and-a-half-year-old Fudge uses many incomplete sentences that include the word no. When he does not want to eat lamb chops, Fudge tells his parents, “No chops!” (chapter 3, p. 23). Later in the same scene, he also turns down corn flakes and shouts, “NO EAT!” (p. 24). These negative fragments show readers how uncooperative and rebellious Fudge can be.

Ordinary informal conversations of both adults and children are full of fragments. In Robert Kimmel Smith’s novel THE WAR WITH GRANDPA, the main character Peter resents having his grandfather take over Peter’s bedroom. The ten-year-old boy wants Grandpa to move out, so Peter commits hostile acts designed to get his room back. Here is dialogue between Peter and his grandfather that includes fragments (in bold).

“You think you’re one slippery customer, don’t you?” he [Grandpa] asked.  “Lots of tricks.

Not tricks,” I said.

Oh, no? What would you call stealing my slippers then?”

Gorilla warfare.” (chapter 20, p. 65)

Here, two family members argue about their relationship using several incomplete sentences. Note that Peter’s spelling mistake in using gorilla instead of guerilla emphasizes his immaturity.

When adults and children experience traumatic evens, our lives often seem shattered. Sentence fragments can reflect this disintegration. In Kathryn Erskine’s novel MOCKINGBIRD (mok′ ing-bûrd), the first-person narrator is a ten-year-old girl with Asperger’s syndrome named Caitlin Ann Smith. Caitlin is a talented young artist, but her life is very difficult. Caitlin’s mother died of cancer, and her older brother Devon has just died after a shooting at his high school. Erskine uses many fragments (in bold below) to reflect the girl’s grief and confusion. “The gray of outside is inside. Inside the living room. Inside the chest. Inside me” (chapter 1, p. 2).

Similarly, teenaged Matt (short for Matilda) in Erskine’s novel QUAKING loses her mother due to an abusive father. A warmongering teacher gives her an F on her pacifist essay and causes her Quaker foster father Sam to lose his job. Toward the end of the novel, violent classmates beat up Matt, and the thugs have just firebombed the local Quaker meeting house, injuring her foster parent Sam. Matt does not know whether he will survive. Although she previously did not consider herself religious, Matt finds herself praying in fragments (in bold).

For Rory’s sake, let him live.

Jessica sobs.

For Jessica’s sake.

The sirens are louder.

For my sake. (Chapter 34, p. 234)

At this moment, Matt realizes that she feels like an integral part of this family, and when Sam hugs her, Matt brings her foster brother Rory and her foster mother Jessica into the hug. This moving scene marks a turning point in Matt’s life that brings the teenager out of her fear and isolation.

Because fragments create special emphasis, we writers need to use them sparingly. Having many incomplete sentences strung together weakens the special effect. If a speaker occasionally thumps the podium to highlight a statement, that is effective. However, if the speaker pounds the podium with every sentence, the pounding will lose its impact. Similarly, a paragraph with too many arbitrary fragments alienates readers. I recommend that writers check to make sure that every incomplete sentence in their fiction or poetry serves a clear and important function.

Janet Ruth Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, wrote the poetry books EXODUS, FOLK CONCERT, and TRAFFIC STOP; the scholarly book COLERIDGE, LAMB, HAZLITT AND THE READER OF DRAMA; the middle-grade fiction chapter book THE PASSOVER SURPRISE; and the award-winning children’s book about bullying HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE. Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten blog: Vacation! There will be no post next Friday. I'm taking one last summer vacation, and since I'm a #PitchWars mentor, my edits are due on my mentee's manuscript. Lots of reading and thinking and discussing over the next two weeks. Enjoy your holiday weekend!

Don't forget:
We want to celebrate with you! Patti Richards is gathering good news for the next round of Hugs and Hurrahs. Please email her your writing, illustrating, and publishing news by Monday, September 25th to be included. And send along your congrats: Patti's picture book manuscript, CUPINE'S PERFECT DANCE PARTNER, won an honorable mention in the 86th Annual Writer's Digest Contest in the children's/young adult fiction category!

Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 18, 2017

Building Empathy in a Broken World

We have a great responsibility as children’s authors. That's the message I took away from Gary D. Schmidt's closing keynote at the SCBWI summer conference in Los Angeles several years ago. His speech moved me to tears, and I’m remembering it this week when the news has been so jarring and upsetting that it feels odd to be going about my normal routine. So many of us are asking what can we do, how can we change the hate that lurks behind doors and spills into our streets. 

Empathy is at the heart of Gary Schmidt’s stories and it’s the message that he shares with other writers. "Kids need to know how to express empathy in a broken world. Write the stories and poems and drama that will give your readers more to be human with.” A great responsibility indeed.

If you haven't read any of Gary's books yet, you have plenty to choose from. I'm re-reading LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINISTER BOY right now, and it remains one of my all-time favorites.

Gary Schmidt will be teaching at the SCBWI-MI Gathering on the Grand in September in Grand Rapids, MI. Learn more about him in several posts over the years on the SCBWI blog

If you’re unable to attend the upcoming SCBWI-MI fall retreat or would like to spend more time learning from Gary, here’s an opportunity in Concord, Massachusetts. This is not an SCBWI event, but Gary Schmidt is teaming up with Patti Gauch, esteemed author, former Editorial Director of Philomel Books, and popular Highlights Foundation teacher. Sondra Soderborg wrote a post here on the SCBWI-MI blog about voice and her experience working with Patti. Learn more about the Gary and Patti (Gatty!) workshop at:

Here are three upcoming events featuring SCBWI-MI authors and more. Please stop by and spread the word! And don't forget about our monthly Shop Talks. Follow the SCBWI-MI Facebook page for reminders and info about topics/presenters.

This Saturday, August 19th, Barnes & Noble, Green Oak Township, MI:

Saturday, August 26th, 10am, IN THE WRITER'S KITCHEN: Stirring Up Books with Shutta Crum. (Writing tips & tricks.) Ann Arbor District Library (Main building, 3rd Floor) Q & A afterward.

Sunday, August 27th, Book Beat 35th Anniversary Party, Oak Park, MI:

September 10th, Kerrytown Book Fest, Ann Arbor, MI:

Coming up on the SCBWI-MI blog: Another lesson from our Grammar Guru, recaps of PAL author events, and another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your good news! Please send your writing, illustrating, and publishing news to Patti Richards by September 25th.

Kristin Lenz

Friday, August 11, 2017

Dear Frida Pennabook: Great Expectations in Grayling

Sometimes it's helpful to tap into the expertise of a fellow writer or artist. Got a question? Need advice? Just ask Frida.

Dear Frida,

I registered for the upcoming Gathering on the Grand conference because there are going to be two editors and an agent there! This will be my first conference and I need to know the best way to make an impression on those editors and that agent so that when I slip them my manuscript at dinner, they’ll remember me. What should I wear? Should I hire someone to professionally design my website? Is Vistaprint the best place to order my business cards? I’m thinking of coloring my hair—is it too trendy if I do pink? Please help me get signed!

Great Expectations in Grayling

Dear Grayling,

First, let me say congratulations on signing up for your very first conference! It takes courage to put yourself out there and mix and mingle with writers from all over the Mitten. You should be proud of yourself.

Second, the mental picture I have of you, chasing after presenters and tossing business cards at them like confetti while babbling about the pure genius of your manuscript (which you are certain is destined for the New York Times best seller list) is very, um, striking, even without the pink hair.

My darling GE in G, I have two words for you: PLEASE DON’T!

Forgive me if I sound harsh. But the reality is that conferences are where one goes to “discover”, not “be discovered.” Conferences are designed for writer of all levels to improve their skills. If you pay the fee expecting to find an agent or an editor, you’re bound to leave disappointed. No matter the speakers or the presentation topics, nothing will come close to that expectation.

On the other hand, if you think of conferences as opportunities to learn from experts in the field, then you’re on the right track. You’ll hear from people who have put in the time and the effort to reach the level of success they have through hard work and who are willing to share with you some of their secrets. You’ll come back not only inspired, but you’ll bring with you a tool kit of new ideas to explore and make your own.

Yes, people are “discovered” at conferences on occasion. But those people have also spent lots of time doing the grunt work needed to improve their skills beforehand. I know a couple of these writers, and all of them put in years of effort to learn from others both before and after their “overnight” successes. They have never regretted it, and neither will you.

So, color your hair butterfly blue, if it suits your personality. Have plenty of business cards ready to pass out to all the new contacts you’ll make while at Gathering on the Grand. Overhaul your website if you think it’s time. But do these things for you, not for some presenter at a conference. Take the time to do them right rather than rushing through them, because it’s not worth making a mistake that thousands of people might see, when all you wanted to do was make an impression on one editor or agent.

In other words, adjust your Great Expectations, be yourself, and be ready to learn!


Frida Pennabook will be at the Gathering on the Grand, improving her writing skills. Her hair will be in its usual sensible bun and will not be pink. Or blue. Though she thinks those are lovely and wishes she had the cajones.

A Gathering on the Grand is almost sold out! Don't delay, register today:

* Support our SCBWI-MI authors! Spread the word and stop by to say hi:

* And finally, here's a special opportunity for SCBWI illustrators. Deadline is Sept. 13, 2017:

Friday, August 4, 2017

Writer Spotlight: Dave Stricklen

You’re retired now, but your previous career is more colorful and unusual than most. Can you tell us a little about the job you used to do?

I was the Chief of the Airport Police in Grand Rapids for 22 years. I was always in the middle of anything that went wrong or right. We had a 16 person police department and 6 person dispatch center.

I’m sure you’ve collected many stories about your experiences with the airport Police. Could you give us one example? Have you considered writing a memoir?

We received a call from a tenant that a woman was being forced into a Lear jet. She was screaming “Help, I’m being kidnapped!” My Sergeant and I jumped in the patrol car and raced toward the main runway. The aircraft was turning to take off so we drove at them as they started to roll toward us. We turned sideways blocking the aircraft. The doors flew open and people spilled out. Arrests resulted.
I have 86 one liners on a piece of paper. Each represents a significant incident that could be written about. Someday I will write about them but right now I’m having too much fun in MG fiction. I also set up security for every president while I was Chief. I was able to meet them and go on Air Force 1.

Instead of sipping a beer and watching the grass grow when you retired, you wrote a middle grade trilogy. Where did THAT come from? Did you always envision the work as three separate volumes?

My grandmother lived with us when I was little and we were special buddies. She had me make up a new story for her each night before I went to bed. I made my own comics as a child and wrote stories as an adult. I never stopped. When I retired, I decided to go all in with my passion and wrote my first book. The characters in my books had more to say so the series just happened.

You decided to independently publish your novels, and you’ve been unusually successful in marketing them. Without giving too much away, what’s your secret?

Being an unknown, I first needed credibility. I was a reviewer’s choice bookwatch selection from Midwest Book Review and received positive reviews from Kirkus and Writers Digest Magazine.
I wrote books that my MG self would have loved to read. The books are fast moving, with a roller coaster plot. If the books did not engage MG students, I would have died a quick death. If the characters didn’t get wiser, stronger or smarter from their experiences in the first book, they would not survive the next two. My goal was never to be as good as a traditionally published book, my goal was to exceed them. The books are all hardcover, unique original artwork both on the cover and at the start of each chapter, the best paper and a nationally recognized printer. I hired a real editor, proofer and printer.

You do many school visits a year. Again, without divulging any trade secrets, to what do you attribute your prowess with middle school students?

My school visits are very interactive. I create stories on the fly with them just as I did with my grandmother. I do a few magic tricks that go along with the presentation. The real trick is that I enjoy my time with the students and they can see it. I sold 147 books to one grade at one school. I often times break 100. I have no middle man and the printer is located in Grand Rapids so I have no shipping cost. I make about $9.00 for every book that I sell.

You’ve gotten deeply involved in SCBWI and are working on the Advisory Committee planning conferences. What do you find most satisfying when involved in the inner workings of these special events?

These creative types are a pleasure to be around and have become good friends. We all share a love for story creating that binds us.

What are you working on now?

I’ve written a MG story (that has my heart) about a wrestler who enters a worm charming contest called Ripley Robinson and the Worm Charmer. In the past, I didn’t have the patience to take the traditional route. I now have the patience to take that step.

Thanks Dave. For more information, visit  Dave's website

Dave Stricklen is one of the co-chairs for the upcoming SCBWI-MI fall conference, the September 15-16  Gathering on the Grand
 He’ll also have an original piece of artwork displayed at the B.O.B.  for Art Prize . (If you need any more reason than Gary Schmidt and Denise Fleming , all the Art Prize displays should be installed and ready to view that weekend.)

Charlie Barshaw just finished the first draft of his YA novel Aunt Agnes (working title).He also gratefully accepted an offer to work as an editor on The Mitten, where he plays around with pictures and asks Ruth innumerable questions.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Janet Ruth Heller, Grammar Guru: Agreement of Subjects and Verbs

Introducing Janet Ruth Heller in her first Grammar Guru post! Janet will address common grammar problems and questions that she frequently encountered during her thirty-five years as a college professor of English literature, composition, creative writing, and linguistics. Today's post is a back-to-the-basics lesson as Janet explains the agreement of subjects and verbs in fiction. Here's Janet:

In most English sentences, the subject and verb are right next to one another, so it is easy to make them agree. If the subject is singular, the verb should be singular; if the subject is plural, the verb should also be plural. For example, in the sentence “Molly likes pizza,” the subject “Molly” is singular, so the verb “likes” is also singular.  In the sentence “Molly and Jack like pizza,” the subject “Molly and Jack” is plural, so the verb “like” is also plural.

Note that people who have not grown up speaking English find it confusing that this language uses an s to make nouns plural but also uses an s to make present tense verbs singular. So if a character in your story is just learning English, he or she will probably have trouble with subject-verb agreement, and you may reflect that in your dialogue. Also, young children who are just learning English will not make subjects and verbs agree perfectly, so you do not need to make toddlers sound like college professors.

Similarly, the United States, England, South Africa, India, and other English-speaking countries have dialects that make subjects and verbs agree differently. Each dialect has its own subject-verb agreement rules. When you portray a character who knows a nonstandard dialect, such as Cockney English, Chicano English, or African American English, you should do research on the rules of that dialect. Also, be consistent in having that character not add s to singular present tense verbs, for instance.

Even native speakers of English have trouble with what we linguists call “blind agreement.” In about thirty percent of sentences, the subject and verb get separated by other words. When this happens, a writer has to work harder to determine what the real subject is. For example, in the sentence “The playground of the children has flooded,” the adjective prepositional phrase “of the children” comes between the subject “playground” and the verb “has flooded.” Although the plural word “children” comes right next to the verb, “children” is not the subject, so the verb needs to be singular. Similarly, in the sentence “Any student who talks back to teachers gets expelled from school,” the adjective relative clause “who talks back to teachers” separates the singular subject “student” and the singular verb “gets expelled.” Despite the fact that the plural word “teachers” is right next to the verb, “teachers” is not the sentence’s subject. In standard English, a verb must agree with its subject, not any nearby word.

Of course, if your story has characters who are learning English, who speak a nonstandard dialect, or who are very young, their conversation or monologues need to reflect their struggle with blind agreement. For example, a child, vernacular speaker, or immigrant might say or write in a journal, “My friends from Detroit comes with me to the State Fair” or “My friend from Detroit come with me to the State Fair.” Flawed subject-verb agreement adds realism in fiction for children.

Janet Ruth Heller, President of the Michigan College English Association, wrote the poetry books EXODUS, FOLK CONCERT, and TRAFFIC STOP; the scholarly book COLERIDGE, LAMB, HAZLITT AND THE READER OF DRAMA; the middle-grade fiction chapter book THE PASSOVER SURPRISE; and the award-winning children’s book about bullying HOW THE MOON REGAINED HER SHAPE. Learn more at

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Frequent contributor Charlie Barshaw has officially joined the Mitten Blog editorial team! Come back next Friday for our quarterly Writer Spotlight feature where Charlie will shine the spotlight on one of our SCBWI-MI members. Who will it be?

Registration is now open for the SCBWI-MI Fall Conference with early-bird pricing until August 5th. Don't delay - spots are filling up fast and the conference is expected to sell-out. Learn more and register here.