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 events, 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.