Monday, November 8, 2010

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Novel)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Novel) Release date: 1943. Author: Betty Smith. Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ASIN: B00365QTQK.

Plot summary: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story Francie Nolan and her family growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. The book is divided into five parts. In part one, the reader meets eleven-year-old Francie and her little brother Neeley. Francie and Neeley live with their parents, Johnny and Katie in the tenements of Williamsburg. Johnny Nolan is an alcoholic and Katie works as a house cleaner. Living in utter poverty, Francie and Neeley earn pennies selling scrap metal with other children of the tenements. Part two tells the story of Johnny and Katie’s meeting and falling in love as first generation immigrants. Part three describes the Nolan children as they begin school, as well as the death of Francie’s father from pneumonia. The rest of the book chronicles Francie’s coming-of-age as she and Neely grow up and get jobs to support their family. As Francie’s life appears to have more on the horizon than that of her mother, she can’t help but remember the small apartment in Brooklyn where she grew up.

Critical evaluation: Though written almost seventy years ago about a time long since past, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn remains one of the most celebrated and classic coming-of-age tales .The character of Francie Nolan is one many teen girls can identify with: she struggles to find out who she is while coping with her father’s alcoholism, her family’s poverty, and her unfortunate surroundings. Addicted to reading and education, Francie’s unending struggle to better her life has and will continue to inspire many. Betty Smith paints a rich portrait of the characters in the novel, and as they grow, the reader feels connected with their lives. The book is also an excellent look at life in the early 20th century. Smith’s attention to detail is perfect for creating a realistic backdrop for her story. In a way, Brooklyn itself is another character in the novel. Francie’s ability to overcome adversity, essentially becoming the “tree” that grew out of Brooklyn, is what keeps generation after generation interested in reading this wonderful, heartwarming novel.

Reader's annotation: This classic novel tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in early 20th century Brooklyn. As Francie grows up, she remembers the people who have come and gone from her life, and looks to the future which holds endless possibilities.
About the author: Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Sophina Elisabeth Wehner, or Betty Smith, grew up in the tenement neighborhood of Williamsburg, the daughter of German immigrants. Many believe that her childhood experiences are presented in almost autobiographical fashion in her most well-known novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith married her first husband, George H.E. Smith, and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. There, after having two daughters, Smith attended classes at the University of Michigan, studying journalism, literature and writing. In 1938, Smith divorced her husband and moved to North Carolina where she met and married her second husband, Joseph Jones. She published her first novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, in 1943. Working with George Abbott, Smith adapted the novel to a musical in 1951. Smith wrote several other novels, such as Tomorrow Will Be Better (1947), Maggie-Now (1958) and Joy in The Morning (1963). She won several awards for her work as a dramatist, including the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship. Smith died in 1972 from pneumonia. (

Genre: Fiction/Historical

Curriculum ties:
Early 20th century Brooklyn
World War I
Influential American literature

Booktalking ideas:
War and its influences on culture and life
Children of immigrants

Reading level/Interest Age:
Age 13+

Challenge issues:
Sexual content
Attempted rape

Challenge counterpoints:Recommended for grades 7 and up.
Point out that novel is classic, based on author’s experiences (controversial portions of novel are not meant to be inflammatory.)
Recommend parent read novel before child.
Recommend parent discuss situations in novel with child.

Reasons for inclusion:
Considered to be a classic American Novel.
Adapted into musical and film versions.
Was best-seller when released.  

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