Writing exercises


Years ago, while reading C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, I came across the paragraph in chapter 17 that begins, “It was mid-morning when the man dropped him at a corner beside a little country hotel.” This is a perfect paragraph, I realized, and it was the first time I’d ever experienced the power and artistry of what William Strunk Jr. calls “a convenient unit” that “serves all forms of literary work” (The Elements of Style, rule 13).

Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for perfect paragraphs. They are usually hiding around the corner, part of a series of ordinary paragraphs in a novel or essay, catching me by surprise with their concision, imagery, internal rhythm, completeness, and connection to the paragraphs before and after them.

A Children's Biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett

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.