Oh Susanna – Is It Okay To Use Sentence Fragments In Picture Book Manuscripts?

On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again….

Oh, sorry!  I guess it is a little early Monday morning to be subjecting you to my singing 🙂

But, like the song says, I am on the road again.  This time it’s JFK or bust.  Talk about scary traffic loops!  I’m really and truly hoping I find the right terminal.  If anyone wants to send good vibes my way, I won’t say no!

Of course I’ve been to JFK lots of times before… but always in a cab with a taxi driver who knows where he’s going!  But there’s nothing like adding a little excitement to your life, right? 🙂

Speaking of which, where is my EZ Pass?  Seriously, the whole point of an EZ Pass is EASE!  Back when I had the Dogmobile, it was easy.  It stuck right to the windshield by the rearview mirror.  When I switched to Princess Blue Kitty, the EZ Pass came with me, but the stick-on thingies went with the Dogmobile, so now my EZ Pass is supposed to be in the glove compartment, but I have to remember to take it out and hold it up to the windshield.  And sometimes it falls down in the cracks somewhere… and searching for it makes for perilous driving… talk about excitement…  It must be here somewhere… And you must be able to get replacement stick-on thingies…

Anyway, whilst I’m driving through confounding traffic patterns and searching for my EZ Pass, you all can read the answer to today’s Oh Susanna question, another one from Darshana – she should probably get double billing on Oh Susanna since she’s always so full of helpful questions 🙂  Which reminds me, if anyone has any questions, please send them along – I’m nearly out!

Today Darshana is wondering whether it’s okay to use sentence fragments in picture books (and I happen to know Robyn was wondering this too, so I’m assuming maybe a lot of people are in the same state of wonderment :))  Here is her exact question:

Recently I was typing out Mostly Monsterly by Tammi Sauer so I could study the text.
In a few places there were sentence fragments posing as sentences.
“And pet kittens. And bake.”
I understand why this was done in the finished book. However, when submitting a MS should a pb author use correct grammar all the time, or can the author take artistic license to make the story more alive?

This is a very good question.  Because as Darshana so cleverly pointed out with an example, there are LOTS of instances where sentence fragments are used in picture books.

The answer is fairly straightforward.  In general, you should be as correct as possible.  Your grammar should be correct.  Your spelling should be correct.  Your word usage should be correct.  Your manuscripts should be presented in as professionally written a way as you are capable of.

HOWEVER, judiciously used, for a specific purpose, sentence fragments can be acceptable, as can sentences beginning with “and” or “but” (normally big no-nos).  It must be for the sake of effect, rhythm, or voice, though.  It has to feel right.  And it can’t be every single sentence.  It may also be best not to use one right up front to start your story, lest the editor reading it think you don’t know how to construct a sentence.

The best advice I can give you is to read lots of picture books (always a good practice anyway) and see when and how sentence fragments are used in traditionally published books.  This will give you a feel for what’s acceptable.

This question also brings to mind a related one – about proper language.  If you are familiar with Junie B. Jones, you will know that Junie speaks in a way that is supposed to sound childlike and five-year-oldish.  Personally, I have never heard a five year old speak that way – none of mine did – but I get the point.  My kids enjoyed the stories, but when I read them aloud, I always corrected the grammar.  I just couldn’t read them aloud as they were printed.  Clearly, this is something that doesn’t bother lots and lots of people, and clearly didn’t bother the editor who bought the book, so my point is, to some degree, it’s a matter of voice and personal taste.  It is also one of the things that separates one writer’s style from another’s.  Barbara Park is comfortable writing that way and has enjoyed a great deal of success with Junie (and for the record, I think her stories are appealing, as is Junie, and kids really like them – I just personally stumble over that language issue a bit).  But I think what makes it work for her is the fact that she’s telling good stories.  I can’t think of an instance where incorrect language is used in picture books, though, except perhaps occasionally in an illustrated note that is supposed to look as though a child wrote it.

Darshana, I do hope that answers your question.  If not, please feel free to ask for further clarification in the comments.  And as always, I would be glad to have anyone with knowledge and expertise in this area add their two cents – this is a collaborative effort to help all of us be better educated and prepared to do a better job with our writing – so comment away!

Now, I guess I’d better find that flingin’-flangin’ EZ Pass.  There’s a toll booth coming up!

Have a great day, everyone 🙂

On the road again
Just can’t wait to get on the road again….

34 thoughts on “Oh Susanna – Is It Okay To Use Sentence Fragments In Picture Book Manuscripts?

  1. Andrea says:

    Thanks for answering the question, Susanna. I've noticed fragment sentences in some pbs and they draw a lot of attention to the sentence, for emphasis or style, so I guess too many of them would be repetitive or annoying.

  2. Angela Brown says:

    Here's to hoping you can get replacement sticky thingies for your EZ Pass for Blue Kitty. Can't have you distracted while driving 🙂

    And thank you for the information today.

  3. Robyn Campbell says:

    I've always had a hard time with books like Junie too. I changed mine. I felt I had to since it was the second sentence in the story. I'm glad I did too. But I loved it the way it was. I just don't want an editor to think I ain't got no sentence sense. Yanno? Thanks for the great advice. You'll never know how much it means. I had this great question that I wanted to ask. But it left my brain. *sigh* I am racking said brain. Nothing yet.

    Maybe you could ask Jo-Jilly for some advice on the EZ pass sticky problem. I mean she is used to telling you what to do and where to go. *wink*

    Said a prayer for your safety. Those loops are loopy. 🙂

  4. This Kid Reviews Bks says:

    Hmmmm… I read on a blog that the reviewer doesn't like Junie because of her bad grammar (teaches kids to speak bad) and because she always throws fits (teaches kids to throw fits to get what they want), but I always liked Junie B. Jones (when she's in kindergarten, not first grade). Mt mom doesn't like books like that either, but I guess I don't mind because I know not to talk/act like that. 🙂

  5. Kim Murray says:

    I correct grammar in books I read to my kids, too. I know how kids talk, but instinctively I can't bring myself to read bad grammar in a book even if it is written as a child that age would speak. It's hard enough to get my son to say, “Ethan and I” instead of “me and Ethan” when talking about his friend, but to read “me and Rowley” over and over and over again in every single Diary of a Wimpy Kid book makes me cringe. Cringe. It's like nails on a chalkboard. Every time my son says, “me and Ethan” I say “who?” and he says it again and I say, “who?” until he's so frustrated with me he finally says, “Ethan and I!” Hey, it's what my parents did to me…

  6. Tina Cho says:

    Great question, Darshana. I've always wondered about that, too, especially as a teacher….We're constantly trying to get our students to write complete sentences. So thanks for your great insight, Susanna. Hope u make it to JFK!

  7. Beth Stilborn says:

    Thanks for this, Darshana and Susanna (nice combo of names — you two make a good tag team!) I have been wondering the same thing as I write my various genre books.

    I am VERY glad someone shares my feelings about the grammar in Junie B. Jones. I was horrified by the first Junie B. book I read. Although the stories are good, they're not books I'd want to share with kids, because they are so over the top in the supposedly “child-like” language. Clementine's language is a bit that way, but is much more subtle.

    Good luck with that drive to JFK!

  8. Pamela_courtney says:

    I've always wondered about sentences beginning with “and” or “but.” In most instances, I really liked the way the sentence flowed. That could just be credited to my untrained eyes and ears.

  9. Vivian Kirkfield says:

    Thanks, Susanna, for answering a question that many of us have thought about. It is so difficult when writing a pb, because for every “rule” there are so many exceptions. 🙂
    Good luck at JFK…we flew out of there for our honeymoon, almost 45 years ago. 🙂 Slightly smaller and easier to navigate then!

  10. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I have it, Delores! And I have successfully navigated the Van Wyck… although it was a long haul. It took me one hour to go 3 miles on the way back because of construction and traffic! Phew! Glad that's over 🙂

  11. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I definitely don't want to Junie-bash – I think the books have lots of good points. I just have a problem with the language issue. And i think you have a good point – lots of kids do know better than to talk/act like that, so for them it really isn't an issue – just fun 🙂

  12. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I certainly don't man to disparage Junie – lots of people love her – in fact my kids did, and there are elements I like very much. But the language thing doesn't sit well with me… Glad if Darshana's question was helpful, and thanks for the good wishes – I'm happy to report that I am safely home 🙂

  13. Yvette Carol says:

    We have a children's lit legend over here, Margaret Mahy. She was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson medal. Margaret was notorious for making words up, Horrakapotchkin! In some people's hands, any rule can be broken. 🙂

  14. Tiltonph says:

    Good question Darshana. I see it occasionally in books with statements from kids like “You wanna go?” I just see it as kid talk.

    Susanna, when do you get of the road? You've spent the summer touring the country!

  15. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    No worries on my account 🙂 I realized my initial comments may have sounded rather negative as well, and I didn't mean that so much as a “to each his own” kind of thing.

    Beth Stilborn (unregistered) wrote, in response to Susanna Leonard Hill:

    I re-read my comment and realized it was quite negative-sounding. I do realize that the Junie B. stories are loved by kids, it's just Junie B's grammar makes me cringe.

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  16. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    Let's see… I may be off the road around September 9 at 2:20 PM… but you never know 🙂 Going to Vermont this week… maybe Pennsylvania again next week…. maybe Boston again at some point… we'll see 🙂

  17. Penny Klostermann says:

    Great question and answer! Oh Susanna….I do love this series. It is so helpful.
    Personally, I love Junie B! Poor grammar and all. (speaking of fragments 🙂 One of my teaching fields is English…so go figure! I think they are hilarious. Maybe it's because I live in Texas and I hear intelligent children speaking in Texas Twang-Slang expressions. Or maybe it's because, as an elementary teacher, I saw the follow-the-rule kiddos just cracking up at her sassy antics (which they wouldn't dream of trying, but thought it was funny that Junie B. did!) But I think mainly it's because I saw how well-worn those books were in our school library and in the libraries I called on when I sold books. The librarians were always asking if I had any new series that were similar to Junie B.
    Anyway….I loved the question/answer and loved the discussion. Thanks Darshana and Susanna!

  18. Susanna Leonard Hill says:

    I like Junie, too, Penny, and didn't mean to disparage her. The stories are fun, Junie is fun, and I think she encourages a lot of kids to read which is great. I was really just trying to make the point that depending how you do it, anything goes. Some people might be chastised for sentence fragments or incorrect language usage while others can make a whole series fly with it. It's the nature of publishers and readers – there's something for everyone, and isn't that grand?

  19. Damon Dean says:

    Never minded sentence fragments. BUT I am sure they are used sometimes when they shouldn't be. If they are part of the 'voice' of the story or character, I think they are allowable. As an old teacher, I know kids and how they converse, talk, protest, wonder out loud…it's all part of the young mind and heart. SO each instance has a value of its own, based on the context and use. Like every phrase and word.

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