Review: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The secret lies in the reading and the writing. You are able to read. Every day you must read one page from some good book to your child. Every day this must be until the child learns to read. Then she must read every day, I know this is the secret.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith has been sitting on my bookshelf for over 20 years. Growing up, my best friend implored me to read the book for years, and she is the one who gave me the copy I’ve had since high school. This is why it was high on my list for The Unread Shelf Project, and my first choice for the Bucket List Book Club. My first thoughts on this book were, “I cannot believe I waited so long to read it!” A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is so wonderful. Yes, it’s a classic, and yes, it is long, which can be a deterrent for me. But this isn’t like any other classic I’ve read. It’s beautiful and timely and fun to read, and the second I finished it I flipped back to the first page and read some of it again. If you joined in with the Bucket List Book Club’s reading of this, or have already read it, please comment below or on my Instagram page with your thoughts about this book! (We will be having a group discussion over on Instagram on Sunday, March 4, at around 2PM CST.)

“You won’t die, Francie. You were born to lick this rotten life.”

Francie Nolan and her family (mom, dad, and little brother) live in the slums of Brooklyn. Williamsburg, to be exact. This book is divided into 5 books, each one focusing on a different time period in Francie’s and her parents’ lives. The book is largely about Francie’s formative years in Brooklyn and her goal of getting out of the slums, but the other characters are fully formed, and we get an entire picture of how her family came to be, how and why Francie is the way she is, and how people of all kinds survived poverty in the early 1900s in New York.

There is too much in the book for me to summarize the plot here, and I don’t want to give anything away. But as my friend implored me years ago, I implore you to read this book! It is loosely based on Betty Smith’s life, and how she gained an education without the means to do so. Smith’s descriptions in this book are flawless. They are not overly flowery or long, but I wasn’t just reading about Francie’s apartment, I was there, eating bread paste meals with her, buying penny pickles on days where there was no food, and surviving the seasons. The depiction of how Francie and her brother Neeley had to get food were particularly stunning: the lengths to which poor families (the book’s verbiage, not mine) had to go to to just get scraps of food is unreal. (And still relevant today, shockingly enough.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is funny, emotional, sentimental, eye-opening, charming, and absolutely inspiring. Francie is a kindred spirit who loves books, libraries, chocolate, and learning. There are some passages that are a bit cringe-worthy, a sign of the times in which the book was written, some are shocking for the time, but on a larger scale, this book is still very relevant today. It truly will make you laugh, cry, think, and reconsider everything you know about how we live, how we survive, and how we can change our situations with determination and hard work. Bottom line: READ THIS BOOK!


Francie is a book nerd like the rest of us, and I love her for it. The moment she discovers that she can and wants to become a writer was a magical moment for me in the book. She is all of us who grew up embellishing the truth to make it sound better and discovering that that kind of lying is actually encouraged in writing. She reminds me of Anne Shirley quite a bit, and I think the two books would be wonderful companion reads.

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