A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

Last fall I attended a children’s book festival and came away with Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden by Angelica Shirley Carpenter (who autographed my book) and Jean Shirley (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications Company, 1990). Children’s biographies about children’s authors are doubly intriguing, and it had been years since I had read a children’s biography.

I remember reading a children’s biography of Louisa May Alcott as a child. I was sorely disappointed by the black-and-white photographs, in which Louisa’s and her family’s faces were massive and severe, and by the facts of Louisa’s life, which was nothing so romantic (I thought at the time) as Jo March’s.

As I began reading Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was prepared for the unglamorous truth about her life and the pictures of her as a sturdy lady corseted up in bizarre Victorian ensembles. What I didn’t expect was the sheer joy of reading a biography written for middle-grade children.

The writing is simple and does not devolve into academic-ese, as adult biographies so often do.

Frances used the additional income to buy the family a new house in Washington, at 1770 Massachusetts Avenue. It had 22 rooms, which she furnished luxuriously. For her sons, who liked to experiment with machinery, she bought a small, used printing press. They promptly began a neighborhood business, printing fliers and advertisements. (67)

Not only is the communication efficient and clear, it focuses on things that children are interested in. The Burnetts’ house had 22 rooms—exactly the type of information that enthralled me when, as a child, I first heard an audio version of The Secret Garden and learned that Misselthwaite Manor had 100 rooms. Frances’ young sons get to earn money with a printing press. As an adult, I confess to being far more interested in this detail than in Frances’ copyright lawsuits.

The authors ably explain, in child’s terms, the dull-as-ditchwater topic of the lawsuits. I learned that because of Burnett’s lawsuits, it is now easier for all artists to support themselves, and that’s good for art.

Other adult topics are also addressed in a way that children can handle.

Frances was sad for another reason, too. She and Swan [her husband] were growing apart. Her new book, Through One Administration, seemed to reflect her own life. The story takes place in Washington. Bertha, the heroine, marries a man she does not love. He loves her, but she loves another: a soldier just back from the Indian Wars. Bertha stays with her husband for the sake of their children. (47)

This description of marital problems combines respect for the intuition of middle-graders with sensitivity to their lack of worldly wisdom. Having just finished two adult biographies of Brontë siblings, I can’t help but wonder if those reading experiences would have been far less stressful had the books been written this way: “Everyone knew Emily was dying, but she insisted they act as if she weren’t. This made her family and servants very sad. She got sicker, but would not allow them to call a doctor.”

Reading adult biographies is often a chore for me. But this book brought back good memories of tearing through children’s biographies of Helen Keller, the Wright brothers, and Florence Nightingale.

I particularly remember a series of hardback children’s biographies at the library in my childhood town, with illustrated timelines on the endpapers and at least one line drawing in each chapter. The other day I tried to find the name of this series online. I first turned up the Childhood of Famous Americans series, published by Bobbs-Merrill, but on further digging in some comments on a children’s books blog, I discovered the series I read was called Signature Biographies. (My main reason for this rabbit trail is to say that if you like quirky book blogs, you should check out the one I just mentioned, Collecting Children’s Books, even though it hasn't been updated since 2012.)

If you enjoy writing exercises, either on your own or in a group, consider trying this one.

Exercise: Writing for children versus writing for adults

  1. Take a paragraph from an adult nonfiction book, magazine, blog, or news article, and rewrite it for one or more children’s age ranges.
  2. Revise a paragraph of children’s nonfiction for an audience of adults.
  3. If you are doing this as a group exercise, have each person write a paragraph for a specific audience (adults or a children’s age range). Pass your paragraphs to the right or left. The next person must rewrite the paragraph for a different audience. Stop there or continue passing the paragraphs and revising them for different-aged audiences.

How did your communication change for differently aged audiences? What assumptions have you been making about writing for adults versus writing for children? Could any of the skills needed to write for children improve your writing for adults, and vice versa?