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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Savannah Dorsett
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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Book Buzz is a blog produced in collaboration with neighborhood librarians from Houston Public Library, Harris County Public Library and the Bellaire Library.

I first read Betty Smith’s classic 1943 novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was 12 years old. In the intervening years I have reread it so many times that my copy is now dog-eared and the spine so cracked it falls open naturally to my favorite passages. This incredible book that somehow manages to be harsh and hopeful all at once has come with me through every phase of my life from sleepaway camp, to college, to moving out on my own for the first time.

The titular tree is a scraggly stubborn thing that grows up through the cracks of the concrete in Francie Nolan’s tenement neighborhood. The tree was not planted by anyone. It is not cared for or nurtured. However, despite everything, it survives and so too does Francie

Born sickly to poor parents, Francie grows up in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn and is shaped for better or worse by her family and community. But Francie is also the books that she checks out from the library, slowly making her way through every title alphabetically by author’s last name, she’s her passionate love for beauty wherever she finds it, endless questions and big dreams and, yes, also the loneliness of knowing that she doesn’t quite fit in with everyone else. She is something “every blessed minute of every hour of her life.” From that first reading all those years ago, Francie Nolan was and remains my kindred spirit. She taught me that “the world was mine for the reading” and, in a small way, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn set me on the path of pursuing a career as a librarian.

Other classic literature titles that I have frequently returned to include:

  • The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary. These are children’s books written for real children that treat their thoughts, fears and wishes with respect. These books were the first ones that led to me getting sent home with a note for my parents that I had been caught reading during class. Luckily, my parents ignored it and kept buying me books.
  • Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes by Edith Hamilton, my introduction to Greek mythology, which remains a deep and abiding love to this day. This book is part of the reason I was a Classics major in college
  • Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, a wonderful novel set in the English countryside with one of my favorite literary romances - the proud and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene and the down-to-earth, plainspoken shepherd Gabriel Oak. One of the first books I remember reading where the setting of the novel was a character in and of itself.
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. A world where firemen are tasked with burning books, not putting out fires, this novel is still thought-provoking, still frightening and still relevant. It was my gateway into other dystopian literature including 1984 by George Owell and Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale.
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen. Not as well-known as Pride and Prejudice but actually my favorite. Anne Elliot is quiet and shy but no less an admirable heroine than Elizabeth Bennet as she discovers her inner strength and is reunited with her lost love Captain Wentworth.

And of course all of these books are available at your local Houston Public Library!

What are your favorite classic novels? 

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