A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Copyright Date: 1943
Reading Age: 14-18
Reading Level: Grades 3-12
Awards: A PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Subgenre: Bildungsroman/American Classic
Francie Nolan craves beauty and loves to ponder the world of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is also strong and resilient. One needs to be when there is not a lot of money, your mother is stern, and your father an alcoholic. The Nolans family has a lot of drama. Aunt Sissy keeps falling in love and marrying men—without bothering with divorcing the last one. Francie loves her chaotic family. She will also survive, no matter what challenges confront her.
Francie Nolan's life is one of struggle and poverty. It is stark and harsh and often unpleasant. But Francie is also strong. She recognizes the beauty in things, loves her chaotic family including her alcoholic father, and is resourceful. She is quiet and shy and takes refuge in books. Francie is smart and no-nonsense and a normal person. One of the beauties of this book is that everyone in it is so normal, so flawed in the ways that people are flawed, self-interested and selfish and wishing that they were more. They have favorites and hurt the loved ones who are not the favored. They deal with their personal demons and fail. Love can be tender but also heartbreaking. It shows how important it is to celebrate the little things in life and to view them as if it's the first time you have ever seen it. The book is also beautifully written. Teens will respond to Francie's desire to be something at all times, to be happy or sad or cold or hungry as long is she is something. The starkness of the Nolan's life is a historical representation of Williamsburg, Brooklyn 100 years ago and is another important aspect for teens to discover and analyze. It is an American Classic of working class life and the importance of having dreams as well as seeing the world for what it really is.
Francie Nolan is like one of those trees that grows out of cement—strong and resourceful, but beautiful, too.
About the Author
Betty Smith (December 15, 1896 – January 17, 1972), an American novelist and playwright, is best remembered for her evocative coming-of-age story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Born Elizabeth Wehner, she shared a birthdate — December 15 — with the heroine of that beloved novel, Francie Nolan, though the author’s birth year was five years earlier than Francie’s.
Betty herself had a rough childhood, growing up in the tenements of Brooklyn at the dawn of the 1900s. The family moved several times before settling in a top-floor tenement on Grand Street that served as the model for the Nolan family’s flat in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
Her immigrant parents struggled in their impoverished new environment. Her mother, Katie, was tough as nails, yet passed on to Betty (who in her youth went by the name of Lizzie) a love of storytelling. Her father, about whom little is known other than his alcoholism, died when she was nineteen. (About the author can be found here. Author image from here.)
Discuss how Brooklyn has changed in the last 100 years. How has it stayed the same?
Family is important to Francie's story. Did those relationships help or hinder her?
Challenge issues: violence, molestation, heavy use of alcohol and smoking, strong language
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A classic of American literature, this is a coming of age story set in the previous turn of the century. Beautifully written, teens will still identify with the struggles and issues Francie Nolan faced, even if the Brooklyn setting is quite different from today's experience.