Classic YA Discussion: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

August 29, 2014 2014, classics, readalong, Wendy 59

a tree grows in brooklyn

Greetings, dear readers! We had a long book this month, so I’m not sure how many participants got through it, but we thoroughly enjoyed this one! We also have a long discussion, so we’ll get right to it.

Be sure to scroll to the bottom for next month’s book info, plus a teaser for the exciting prize we’ll be giving away to for one of our readers who completes our classics readalong challenge!

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Layla: So, this has been on my to-read list for a few years, and I’m really excited that it’s the focus of our discussion this month. Things that I really liked: the incredible amount of detail that went into building Francie’s Brooklyn (the pickles and the coffee and the sugar buns! her trips to the public library! all of the various descriptions of clothing and the way each house and building was laid out!). A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was super evocative – so much sensory detail. Yesss, tell me how everything smells and tastes and how you make it, ok, thanks. Actually, if all books came with a recipes section at the end, I would be delighted.

a tree grows in brooklynWendy:  I’ve been meaning to read this book forever, too. Thanks so much for suggesting this one, Kim–I loved it! You really do feel as if you’re sitting on the stoop watching life go by as you read this book. And obviously, I love the food porn! Recipes would have been amazing. Juicy pickles (so funny that All-of-a-Kind Family also has pickle-fixation) and candy and more, though I felt awful when the family was wanting. Those poor kids surviving on coffee and bread with occasional condensed milk, and the tricks Francie had to learn to get the poor cuts of meat or limp vegetable at a discount. There were so many interesting details and points of discussion that I put a sticky note in pretty much every 5 pages.

Kate: I have owned this book since middle school, when it was on my summer reading list, but I was having a hard time with being poor myself so I set it aside and never picked it back up. Cold Sassy Tree was also on this reading list, and I decided not to read it, either, and this is why, to this day, I am turned off by “tree” in titles.

I’m pretty bummed that I missed out on this one as a kid; it really would have meant a lot to me. I’m so glad Kim picked it for our readalong.

Kim: Well, phew! I’m glad everyone liked this one! It’s always a bit nerve wracking when new people are coming to one of your favorite books for the first time. I read this for the first time myself when I was in 7th grade. At the time my normal reading fare was Sweet Valley Twins and Animorphs so this was a transformative experience for me. I easily delved right into Francie’s world and gobbled up every detail. This book took me out of the world I then knew and showed me a world simultaneously larger and smaller than my own. It’s the first time I remember feeling really changed by a book. At the same time, there is a lot I didn’t really get or understand reading this as a child, teen, and even as a younger adult (I was 20 the last time I re-read this one) and it’s been an interesting experience to see what my 28 year old self has discovered on the re-read.

Wendy:  I still want to do Sweet Valley High for one of our readalongs, though I’m torn–can people get ahold of the original ones? I know the ebooks that were recently released had updated details, and I am NOT having that. Having that same issue with Down a Dark Hall, which I think is still going to be our spooky October book. Also, Kim’s hosting an Animorphs readalong at some point. But we digress!

The library was a little old shabby place. Francie thought it was beautiful. The feeling she had about it was as good as the feeling she had about church.

Wendy:   There’s such a love for literature and respect for education in this story. Francie has to fight for every bit of it she gets, and I love that she never loses sight of her yearning for it, even though times get very hard. It’s also interesting that her parents, both uneducated and uninterested in education themselves, support her in this for the most part. Her father, because it’s what his daughter desires (the anecdote when he writes the lying letter so she can go to a good school was awesome), and her mother, because she saw it as a way out of their poverty.

Layla:  Augh. That’s why it was so heart-breaking to me when Francie’s mother tells her she can’t go back to school, and that she needs to keep on working to put Neeley through instead. Francie’s always been told that the most important thing is to get an education, but when it comes down to hers or her brother’s, Katie chooses Neeley’s education. Katie says that Francie will fight and claw her way to an education (and she ends up being right) but I was so angry at her for risking Francie’s education.

a tree grows in brooklynKate: It’s tough. I think Katie feels an obligation to have a son who will grow up and actually be reliable, unlike his father. And she loved Johnny so much when she was young, and I think she sees the parts of him that have been lost still living in Neeley, and she wants desperately for him to become the man she thought Johnny was when she married him.

And while this book is certainly positive about education in general, holy moly, are the teachers ever shown in a terrible light.

Kim:  The respect for knowledge and education is one of my very favorite things about this book. I remember reading Francie going to that library and the clear reverence she feels so clearly reflected the reverence I felt (and still do) entering a library. I get chills specifically when Mary Rommelly speaks about what a miracle it is that she has children who can even read. Her perspective coming from a long line of European peasants just always really got to me. Generations and generations of illiterate servitude and now at last here is the key to a better life.

As for Katie, there are many times in this book where I found myself getting very frustrated  and swinging toward straight dislike of the character (this is a new discovery upon this particular re-read). And then a scene would happen where Katie is noble and good, and self-sacrificing and I’d swing back in the other direction. So ultimately I have pretty conflicted feelings about Katie but I’d say I by and large agree with what Kate has written above.

Wendy: I felt strongly negative feelings towards Katie at times and was also surprised by some of the conclusions that Francie/the author drew from her experiences, but I kept reminding myself that a lot of their attitudes were shaped by how they were brought up and the hard life they endured. Interesting that your feelings about Katie have changed a bit, Kim–if I’d read this as a child, I wouldn’t have known to look on her actions as critically, but I also wouldn’t have felt as much sympathy and appreciation for her, either. I think only time and life experience can help put these types of situations into perspective.

Layla:  I feel like the concept of education the book champions is one that is largely self-directed and, in some ways, experiential? (How Francie refuses to go back to high school, saying that her year of work has taught her more than she could have learned in a high school classroom; & also how she studies for the examinations that allow her to begin college.) Anyway, I wonder if that’s why the teachers in this book are (mostly) terrible.

Wendy: Such a good point. I think you’re right about self-directed education, and a part of that attitude has to be making the best of the situation–knowing she might not ever get the chance for higher education, and therefore almost rejecting it before it has a chance to be snatched away from her.

Francie had a nickel. Francie had power. She could buy practically anything in the store! It was the only place in the world where that could be.

Arriving at the store, she walked up and down the aisles handling any object her fancy favored. What a wonderful feeling to pick something up, hold it for a moment, feel its contour, run her hand over its surface and then replace it carefully. Her nickel gave her this privilege. If a floor-walker asked whether she intended buying anything, she could say yes, buy it, and show him a thing or two. Money was a wonderful thing, she decided. After an orgy of touching things, she made her planned purchase–five cents’ worth of pink-and-white peppermint wafers.

Wendy:  Money is also such a huge issue here, both the power it promises and the terrible consequences of not having it.  It’s rare to find YA/MG books that show the underprivileged in this way, and like The Moffats series or the Little House books, there’s an authenticity of detail that is hard to replicate unless it’s a first-hand account.

Kate: The poverty in this book is as difficult for me to read about now as it was when I was a teenager–much more so than the pig’s bladder ball and shiny pennies of Little House, where there’s almost a novelty to it–and I am in awe of how perfectly the author conveyed this stuff.

Wendy:  Definitely very different from the portrayals in the first two series I mentioned. I mean, even in the middle of an 8 month blizzard in which six Ingalls survived on a single, small loaf of bread daily, there was a lot of love and hope and dignity–a world away from the hard-scrabble life lessons Francie has to learn.

Kim: It is so incredibly heartbreaking. I actually love that Katie allowed the coffee wasting. It certainly seems eyebrow-raising but The “North Pole game” is especially affecting. Turning poverty and starvation into a game for your children? It’s barely imaginable. These are the sort of things I need to remember when I get frustrated about Katie.

As an aside, I enjoyed the little bits of culture that at first seemed anachronistic until you realize that ridiculous political narratives have been with us for a long time. For instance, at the end of the book after WWI breaks out and they mention they shouldn’t order “sauerkraut” it’s now “Liberty Cabbage.” Also, at one point Francie is listening to someone lecturing about how the poor are only poor because they’re lazy. Francie, incredulous, thinks of Katie’s non-stop labor and marvels, “Mama? Lazy?” This is a narrative that is, rather unfortunately, with us still.

a tree grows in brooklynLayla: Yes! That’s her horrible teacher who tells her that she needs to write about love for country, truth, beauty, mother-love, and happy daisies. And YES to everything else you wrote. The Liberty Cabbage moment really reminded me of Freedom Fries.

Wendy: Political correctness gone a little mad. Oh, and as I read the book I was shuddering over Katie forcing Francie to take her brother to get vaccinated all by herself, and that the professionals allowed it! Jeez. I’m watching Call the Midwife right now, which is set in a poor London neighborhood around the same time, so it’s interesting to see the parallels.

I love, love, loved Francie’s graduation day. The jitters, the emotion, and then the overwhelming surprise of her late, fickle, charming father’s gift. I cried into my pillow at that scene–I hope it really happened for Betty Smith.

Layla:  I want stories of Francie at college. Or Francie publishing her first book and following up on the cutting drama she scripts between her and her awful English teacher, Miss Garnder (which, by the way, was one of my favorite parts of the book). I also want to read about how Francie realizes that Lee reminds her of her idolized father in his weakness and neediness and in so doing, realizes that she deserves way better because Lee is AWFUL and the WORST. Also, I want to know what Laurie’s childhood is going to be like. (When Francie and Neeley talk about what Laurie’s life is going to be like as a McShane, they say, “She’ll never have the hard times we had … and she’ll never have the fun we had, either.”)

Wendy: I understand why the story stopped where it did, but I’d dearly love to know what happened after they moved away from Brooklyn. I’m also very interested in hearing what’s fact and fiction–from the afterwards in the edition I have, the author says that she wrote it as it should have happened, not as it did.

It’s interesting that both Francie and Katie have such strong anti-women feelings, to the point where they proclaim “I will never be friends with a woman.” This took me aback, even though I think later on Francie softens a bit on that point.

Layla:  This broke my soul a little. (Francie writes this after watching a group of women stone Joanna for having a child out of wedlock.) It kills me because Francie’s conclusion is basically, “Well, men stick together, and women constantly turn on one another!” While this would still bother me, it would bother me less if it didn’t seem like it was in some way also the book’s perspective? Like you can only maybe trust women in your family (and sometimes not even then, because they might want to sleep with your husband, but who knows).

Wendy: I read this as the author’s perspective as well.

Kate: YES. THIS. I am generally fine with characters having terrible/racist/misogynistic worldviews, but I cannot stand it when it seems that the author might agree with them. Such a bummer.

Layla: There’s lots of strong women in the novel (Katie! Sissy! Francie!) but they seem really isolated to me. Katie says that she wants Francie to have female friendships – but it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a place for them in the novel. And maybe I’m overthinking this but it also seems to me like the novel thinks that marriage is the best/only end for women (despite Katie’s unhappy marriage, for example, I feel like the only examples we get of single women – or women who live together – are mostly women who are characterized as stunted, miserable, and jealous. We have the teachers – “barren women [who] spent their fury on other women’s children in a twisted authoritative manner” – and the Tynmore sisters, who, upon hearing Katie in childbirth, think, “At least she knows she’s living.) Um. Anyway.

Wendy: Francie’s harsh interpretations and extreme presumptions of feminine motivations really bothered me. It’s easier to look past prejudices and hard-heartedness/hard-headedness in others, but Francie’s clearly a stand-in for Betty Smith, so I was surprised that as the author, writing as an adult, had so little perspective or compassion. I realize that she was not shown compassion herself, but the pronouncements were so negative that they were still difficult (and surprising) to read.

Kim: This was what most surprised me this re-read. I can’t remember ever noticing the anti-woman slant before. And it’s especially strange because the book is filled with “strong women” and Betty Smith was a divorced, single mother in 1930s America. It would seem she’d have a first hand appreciation for feminist issues. I kept waiting for the point in the book where Francie would have a turnaround in opinion/realize how wrong she was but it never happened. This was what affected me the most negatively this time around.

a tree grows in brooklynWendy:  I was surprised by how frankly this book includes topics that are more typically adult. This is a classic that was/is taught in schools and I’m hearing that a lot of people read this between the ages of 10 – 12, but even as an adult I’m faintly scandalized by some of this material, hah. Miscarriages, perversions, sexual assault, prejudice, severe illnesses, alcoholism, xenophobia, etc.– these aren’t things I’m used to seeing in books like this.

Layla:  Oh my God, yes. I can’t imagine having been assigned this in middle school.

Kim: I did first read this in middle school and, for what it’s worth, a fairly decent amount of this stuff went completely over my head.  It’s weird for me the confliction this book has between being feminist and non/anti-feminist. Katie and Francie’s attitudes toward and discussion about sex is very positive and progressive in a book that otherwise has a lot of anti-woman sentiment. It’s just sort of head scratching. But I really, really appreciate that this aspect is portrayed so maturely and without any shaming.

Layla: I was really surprised by Francie’s frank discussions of sexuality with her mother, especially given that this book was written in the ‘40s. That scene where she tells her mother that if she sleeps with someone, she’ll tell her first! I kind of liked the way the book dealt with Francie’s developing sexuality and how her mother manages these conversations as a parent (both when Francie has questions about sex – Katie tells her “simply and plainly all that she herself knew” – but also in practice, when Francie wonders if she’s done the right thing in refusing Lee, and Katie tells her that as a mother, she thinks she’s made the right call, but as a woman, “it would have been a very beautiful thing.”) Anyway, although their relationship is troubled in other ways, I liked this as a model for “talking to your adolescents about sex.”

Wendy:  I agree completely–that was a nice moment, a glimpse of the romantic/womanly dreams that Katie has had to forget.

Kate: I really loved this aspect of their relationship. They are both such mature adults about it.

Wendy: It’s sad that Francie had such troubled relationships with the adults in her life overall, though. The doctors and nurses who called her filthy, the teachers who didn’t care or favored children from the well-to-do families, a father she couldn’t rely on, and a mother who made it clear she favored Francie’s brother. It’s clearly the reason she fought so hard for a better life, and why she learned to rely on no one other than herself.

Layla:   I KNOW. Could she not get a break? In some ways, I was less bothered by her mother’s attitude than I was by those of some of the other adults in her life. I mean, there were parts of the novel where I felt furious at Francie’s mother, but overall, I feel like she’s trying to do the best for both of her children and herself and she has limited emotional and financial resources (which isn’t to say that her blatant favoritism of Francie’s brother isn’t a problem: it seems to be about putting her time and energy towards the child she thinks will thrive, survive, and take care of her, as well as a kind of messed-up way of working through her relationship with Johnny).

Wendy:  Oh, for sure. I understand her mother’s attitude, and even to some degree, the teachers and doctors who might’ve had their own issues going on (no doubt underpaid, understaffed, possibly depressed and needing to distance themselves from people they know they can only help to a certain point). Everyone has a hard life here, and a different burden to bear. It’s sad that Francie was shown so little kindness and constancy in her young life, though. This definitely informed many of the conclusions she drew and her own attitudes and prejudices, some fair, some perhaps not.

I think some of Katie’s “it’s only because Neeley neeeeeds me” justifications are bullshit, though.

a tree grows in brooklynKate: What I hate about the terrible adults in Francie’s life is that I had a completely different experience as a child–right down to the lunchroom lady keeping my Free Lunch ticket hidden so the other kids wouldn’t make fun of me. I don’t know what I would have done without all those kind, compassionate, FEMALE adults in my life.

Layla:  This was another thing that kind of struck me – how many of the people who block Francie in this book are female.

Parts in the story I loved: when Sissy goes to talk to Francie’s teacher, when Sissy goes to a doctor for her eleventh child and it lives (I almost cried), when Francie and Neeley bring home their fresh new dollar bills for their first paycheck, when Francie and Neeley win a Christmas tree, when Sissy makes Francie those beautiful golden pennies. Maybe I just really liked Sissy as a character.

Wendy:  Sissy was amazing! I think there are a lot of women like her, those who are judged on their flighty behavior and outward appearance and life choices, but who also have all these wonderful qualities that few people see, sometimes only their families. I love that scene when she bullies Francie’s teacher into being more fair to her. AND THE CHRISTMAS CHAPTER! I love the Christmas chapter. So wonderful and awful and lovely all at once.

Kim: Some random thoughts from me: I so loved and was envious of Francie’s emergency stairway reading spot. I wanted to look out the window and read. Not having a window seat I grabbed a giant Tupperware bin, put it below my window, and went about making it has comfortable as I could. It was never very comfortable but at least I had my window view! I abandoned it after I finished this book. But whenever I read TREE I always remember 12 year old me sitting in my makeshirt window eat, voraciously devouring the story and being just generally very content. Also, I was so enamored of the point where Francie makes a capsule of the moment she found out war’s been declared that I made my own personal capsule. I remember taking my sister’s lipstick for the print and snipping off a tiny lock of hair to put in my envelope. Haha whatever ended up happening to that envelope I have no idea!

Wendy:  Aw, I can picture dear young Kim curled up on a bin as she read, and dreaming of worlds far away from her own. I love that you made a capsule, too! I remember cutting off a bit of my own hair after Anne of Green Gables. I wonder how many girls have cut off their hair because of books.

Final rating?

Wendy: 4 very strong stars from me. I’m so glad I read this! And I enjoyed reading it with you all. We actually got to discuss on Twitter a bit this time, too.

Layla: 4 stars from me, too. I’m a sucker for good world-building (and also Francie). I wish I’d read it years ago.

Kate: 4 stars. I wish I’d read this for the first time when I was younger, because the anti-feminist bits wouldn’t have bothered me back then. I’ve had a busy couple of months, and this is the first book I’ve read since about June. If Wendy hadn’t warned us about its length, I absolutely would not have gotten through it in time for this discussion.

Kim: 5 stars. I was disappointed by the regressive attitudes toward women in this re-read and it really ended up affecting my opinion of the story. But this will still always be one of the most important and formative books of my life. It filled me with horror, wonder, sorrow and awe. It was the most adult book I’d read up until that time and it profoundly changed my understanding of the world. I’ll love it always.

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September Readalong: Harriet the Spy!

Title: Harriet the Spy
Author: Louise Fitzhugh
Amazon Links: Kindle ebook and paperback
Discussion Date: Friday, September 26th
Hashtag: #tmgreadalong

harriet the spyHarriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

If you love “unlikeable” heroines, Harriet M. Welsch is the girl you want to meet. She is suspicious and defensive and thinks TERRIBLE things about everyone she knows, even her friends. As a kid, I related so much to her curiosity and her prickliness and her feelings of isolation–she and Turtle Wexler would make really good friends, I think! This book also contains a girl who wants to be a chemist, after-school chocolate cake, and a fascinating Manhattan lifestyle. It’s also really, really funny, in a deadpan/situational way that’s unusual for this age group. I love it, and I hope you will, too! The book is around $5 for either the ebook or paperback, and should be readily available in libraries as well.

Also! If you’d like to get a head start on what we’re reading in October, it”ll be Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan–a dark, gothic mystery that’s perfect for Halloween! If you look into getting this book early, though, please try your best to NOT buy the newest edition, which features terrible and unnecessary modernization and language.

vine-divider-finalClassics Readalong Mid-Year Check OH DEAR, 3/4 of the Year Check

classics challengeHow are you doing with your classics challenge? Remember, you need to:

— read at least 8 classic middle grade or young adult books of your choice
— review them on your blog or GoodReads
— post the challenge button on your site and/or reviews.

That’s it! Easy-peasy.There are still 3 full months to catch up if you’ve fallen a little behind, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the books we’ll be officially reading for the rest of 2014.

At the end of the year, if you’ve met all the criteria, we’ll be giving away an amazing prize to one lucky TMG classics challenge participant.

Trust me, this is a prize you’re going to want–it is very, very, very, very pretty. I just got everything in yesterday, but will be hopefully taking some photos and giving you a peek at the grand prize later today, so be sure to keep an eye out on #tmgreadalong on Twitter for the big reveal!

Updated to add this photo of the prize! All four gorgeous Puffin in Bloom classics will go to one lucky U.S. winner–and we’ll have a separate prize if an international winner is chosen. :) More photos on Tumblr as well.

puffin in bloom

vine-divider-finalAll right, did you make it through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this month? Even though our initial 4-way TMG discussion was literally 8 pages long before I edited it down, we’ve barely scratched the surface of all the wonderful details in this book, and all the fascinating possible discussion points. What did you think of the story, and of Francie?

Tell us how you’re doing on your classics challenge, too! So far we’ve read 7 books together, and I know some of you have been reading other delightful classics as well.

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59 Responses to “Classic YA Discussion: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

  1. Cait

    I’m so glad we can still join the Challenge! Rainbow Rowell linked to it on her tumblr so I expect you’ll get a lot today.
    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite childhood books and I re-read it every few years. I have an old copy that belonged to my great-aunt so it has that musty book smell. That, and the story of a girl who was a lot like me makes this book precious. And what a great story to get other kids to love stories!

  2. Danielle Binks

    This is one of my favourite books, ever. I read it shortly after reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for the first time when I was about 12/13 and I credit those two books with keeping me hooked on reading for life.

    My favourite quote from the book is: “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.” It’s stuck with me ever since.

    I remember in an episode of ‘Band of Brothers’, one of the soldiers is reading a copy and passes it on to one of his friends. That struck me as really interesting, and got me thinking how the book was published in 1943 right in the middle of the war. I found the publication and editorial history of Smith’s book really interesting: http://web.njit.edu/~cjohnson/tree/pub/pub.htm particularly because men were scarce during the war, Smith worked with one of the industry’s first female editors – and they did a damn good job together.
    Danielle Binks recently posted…How to buy books for young adults

  3. Laura P Bryant

    I’ve always seen this book come up in “best of” reads and “must read” lists. I’ve wanted to read it but always something comes up.. usually another book. I’m going to make a concerted effort to put this one closer to the top of the list.

  4. Alycia

    I love that you’re promoting the classics! I feel like they don’t get enough attention in the YA world. So, kudos to you!! :)

  5. Jenn G

    First of all, thank you for choosing this book! It’s one I never read as a kid. Once I read it, I can see why my mom (my major source of book inspirations) wouldn’t have recommended it – she liked more “sanitary” kids books. This book might have sparked some conversations she wasn’t ready to have, and I doubt she would have been as pragmatic about it as Katie Rommely!

    I thought that the timing of this book in our read-along series was perfect. I think I tweeted at you, Wendy, about the comparison between this book and All-of-a-Kind Family – such a similar setting but from such a different perspective! I thought it was interesting to see the similar attitudes about education/reading (weekly trips to the library, respect for books/teachers/education – if only Francie could have had Sarah’s library lady), pennies (savoring the spending of pennies), food (the pickles!), pride in the face of poverty (and the fierce independence against charity).

    Of course there were differences as well – religion in both books played a role in the social lives of the families, but I felt that in AoaKF that there was a greater respect and dedication to religion (at least it was explained more fully in the text). I wonder if this is due to the treatment by others that was shown in ATGiB – they had to band together. I read the other Sydney Taylor books but I can’t remember if they address any discrimination due to being Jewish. Then of course the subject matter – I doubt Aunt Sissy would have made it into Sydney Taylor’s family.

    The narrative style was very different – I loved reading ATGiB because it almost seemed like a stream of consciousness style. I felt like I was growing up right along with Francie.

    I had to laugh that the tree growing in Brooklyn was a kingdom of heaven tree. I have some of those in my backyard and it’s true – I’m pulling up tree sprouts every WEEK. And they grow EVERYWHERE. I hate those trees.

    • Layla

      Agreed. My mother wouldn’t have wanted to have those conversations with me, either! (I still don’t know why she let me read Rebecca when I was 12.)

      You bring up so many good points about the similarities between AoaKF and ATGiB! After reading your comment about Sarah’s librarian, I now also want fanfic where, like, Sarah and Francie meet. One of the things that disappointed me about ATGiB is that we get all of these brief mentions of different cultural experiences but without any focused attention paid to them – and the Jewish characters in particular seem like walking stereotypes – it’s not precisely a nuanced portrayal.

      I haven’t read the other Sydney Taylor books but I’d like to.

      Aunt Sissy wouldn’t have made it into Sydney Taylor’s family, I think, but I love her character so much. She’s so kind-hearted and generous.

      I need to use my google-fu and figure out what a kingdom of heaven tree looks like. When I was reading ATGiB, I was imagining the tree as a melaleuca tree – I’m from Florida & it’s a tree that grows quickly there (it’s also prominent invasive species but that’s unrelated). Good to know what kind of tree it actually is!!
      Layla recently posted…The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  6. E

    Here I am – a little late, even though I finished reading it about a month ago now! Since it was long, I wanted to make sure I had the time to read it.

    I really enjoyed it. It’s a very… gentle read. Francie had a very, very hard life but reading it was gentle… does that make sense? It wasn’t life changing or revolutionary, it was just life.

    Gentle, but painful too. I felt so much for Francie – like you all said she has such awful relationships with the adults who should protect her. I felt particularly angry with her teachers. Katie… I never felt angry with her, like some of you did. I just felt so, so sorry for her in her situation. The whole book was sad. Never quite to the point of my crying, but it was close. The comparison to The Little House books was very apt as well – although poverty is portrayed just as much there, it doesn’t have the same tragic feel as here.

    I also liked the emphasis on the importance of education, and mourned the lack of strong feminine role models. I loved Sissi though! I loved so many of the characters really.

    Bits that stood out for me: Katie letting Francie throw away her coffee, Francie’s awful teacher saying she was dirty, the descriptions of how they managed to last on such minimal food, Johnny’s decline, Sissy’s sad story and how she lied about the baby… This book is going to stay with me. Thank you for sharing it with me – and for your excellent discussion.
    E recently posted…Flowers for Bethlem

    • Wendy Darling

      Hello, hello! Never too late to join in, E. :)

      This book does have a very classic/gentle feel to it, though I was surprised by how harshly some of the ideas were portrayed. “Painful” definitely comes to mind–poor Francie! I felt very sorry for Katie, too, especially after Johnny’s death and she’s still scrubbing floors and worry desperately over how to make ends meet. I got frustrated with her on occasion, but I definitely understand her shortage of time and emotion and resources playing into that situation as well.

      Sissy was amazing! Cheeky champion of the underdog. I love that you could read between the lines and see her tragic yearning for children and love in her story arc, though.

      Johnny’s decline was SO sad. We didn’t even touch upon that in our discussion, but the portrayal of Francie’s father was so well done, both in the sections from his POV and through the way that we see him through his daughter’s eyes. Layla brought up such a good point that Lee is pretty much Johnny to a T.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the book! Thank you for reading it and discussing it with us.

  7. Carina Olsen

    Aw, yay :D Amazing discussion you guys. <3 Thank you for sharing about this book :) It sounds pretty awesome. First time I heard about it today. <3 I have not read any "classics", but hoping to change that one day :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…In My Mailbox #148

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m always curious whether some of our classics become known overseas, Carina. This classic is a pretty easy one for YA readers to read, I was worried going into it, but ended up enjoying it so much! I hope you like it if you decide to check it out sometime.

  8. Jeann @ Happy Indulgence

    HAHA oh, when I was in middle school (or primary school as it’s called here) all I read were Animorphs books, Sweet Valley, Babysitters club as well! I have all of the animorphs eBooks, maybe I’ll consider the readalong. I’m not sure if I ever finished the series. The Tree of Brooklyn sounds like a great exploration into poverty, especially at the MG audience. You don’t really see a lot of depth like this book presents. Great discussion ladies!
    Jeann @ Happy Indulgence recently posted…Indulgence Insider #7 – Big News: Jeann’s a Panelist!

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh my, then you should join Kim’s Animorphs readalong! She suggested doing it as an official TMG one when she first joined, but I’d outgrown that reading level by the time they came along, so I wasn’t sure how familiar people would be with that series. I’m not sure whether she’s hosting it here or on GoodReads or Twitter, but we’ll let people know either way.

      TREE is really young adult rather than MG, and it might even be an adult fiction book rather than YA…one of those weird ones that straddles lines. Terrific book regardless, though.

  9. bethany

    warning: long comment ahead! (basically I’m writing an absurdly long comment in lieu of a blog post…… heh)

    ATGiB was on my to-read list for years too, Layla! Funny how we end up back-burner-ing (is that a word?) certain books until something (or someone) gives us the little *oomph* necessary. So thank you TMG!

    And I’m with Wendy, I can’t believe this is something kids read in middle school! (Or maybe I can…) I know for me a lot of the parts that really hit home for me were not things I would have really understood or empathized with when I was younger.

    Wendy! SWEET VALLEY HIGH! Maybe it can be a readalong where you have to get the book from the library, because then you know they’ll have the OG editions!

    RE: Katie… such a real character (presumably based on Smith’s mom…) whose flaws are open and ready to pick at. I can only imagine how many parents out there make some of the same mistakes (as ours did, I’m sure) — it’s seeing it from the reflective perspective of her daughter that breaks my heart… the daughter that knew her brother was the favorite. And who may or may not have understood how much of Katie’s Johnnie ambitions were being displaced onto her son/her brother.

    And Wendy oh my gosh we’ve already talked about the graduation scene and the tearrssss but… oh man… what a thoughtful way to honor her father (whether or not he really was the one that set it up, or if it was Sissy behind it all — even more lovely)

    Layla — I also thought it was really affecting how Katie talked to (now older) Francie about Lee… feels like a lot of parents muck up this transition from being an “adult/child” parent to an “adult/adult” parent and I liked how this was handled.

    Wendy — maybe *because* of the length of the book it lent to more Twitter convos, whereas the shorter one get devoured more quickly :)

    Enjoyed it so much! Thanks ladies!

    (PS: I have NOT read Harriet the Spy in AGGGESSS! Am excited to re-read. I don’t even know if I remember the plot! Ha)

    (PPS: SO awesome to have Layla chiming in on these conversation posts, and to see Layla and Peyton both filling the blog-coffers with posts!!)
    bethany recently posted…Stitch Fix #4 and #5 {catch-up}

    • Wendy Darling

      Hi Bethany! We’re happy to PUSH you into reading anytime, hah.

      We talked about doing a fun fluff book like Sweet Valley High, but can libraries get those old mass market paperback editions? I’m sure they’re pretty easy to get on Amazon marketplace or Albiris or ebay, but I don’t know if people will go to the trouble. And should we read the first book…? Maybe we should just say everyone reads the first book, whatever edition you can get, and we compare notes? Maybe that’s what we need to do with DOWN A DARK HALL, too. I don’t know, what do you think?

      I’m with you on the Katie thing. I got very frustrated with her at times, but I think she did the best that she knew how for the most part. I wish she had tried harder with Francie (because Betty Smith at least seems to think that her mother DID know better but ignored her in favor of her brother anyway), but given everything she had to deal with, I can’t fault her too much. I was SO worried for her after Johnny died and she was pregnant and still scrubbing floors. Jeez.

      I wondered if it was Sissy who sent the flowers, too–though it is a very Johnny-like thing to do–or if there were actually any flowers sent at all. I hope so, I really hope so.

      Good point re: the length of the book allowing us to draw out the experience a bit more so it was more of a readalong this time. It’s also been so busy this summer that what I was doing was procrastinating and then leaving the book to be reread at the last minute, which doesn’t help anybody! I love HARRIET so much that I definitely want to chat about it as we go along, though. :) SO glad you are joining us!

      And YES, you can see now why we invited her to be part of the blog–Layla chatted with us as a reader just the way she chats as a contributor, which I looooooove. I’m enjoying Peyton and Layla’s contributions to the blog so much (sometimes I think it’s unseemly, the degree to which I like the people I share this space with), and thank you so much for letting us know you enjoy them, too. <3

      • bethany

        Good question. I’ll sneak around my library to see if they have the older ones… first book makes sense. I bet a lot of people have their favorite books, but the first one’s such a classic (like reading the first Boxcar Children!). Too bad I don’t still have all of mine… goodness knows my parents and I bought a lot of books growing up that I didn’t know what to do with each time we moved!

    • Layla

      Back-burnering is totally a word as well as a way of life. And yes. I can’t believe I held onto ATGIB for quite as long as I did, though (like, two people five years ago told me to read it and I didn’t). Like you, though, I can’t imagine what reading it in middle school would have been like (I imagine lots of stuff would have gone straight clear over my head) but I’m glad we both came to it eventually!

      I am secretly looking forward to Sweet Valley High. I was never allowed to read those when I was growing up. Like BSC! I’m ready to learn about twin sisters who are both a perfect size six (the only thing I know about the books).

      Heartbreaking for Francie, certainly – since it seems like she’s very aware of Katie’s favoritism towards Neeley, even if she doesn’t understand why as a child (though as she gets older she does seem to be able to connect it to Katie’s feelings about Johnny, i.e., the scene where Katie is all like, “Your father’s music, eh. But Neeley is an ARTIST!!”) I also kind of wonder what it would be like to read the book from Katie’s perspective. Johnny gets such a pass, I think, whereas Katie’s portrayal is much more ambivalent. And Katie does work so hard for her family – even if her feelings about her children are a little screwy, her desire to make something of Neeley does motivate her to work for both of them. Anyway, that must be a little heartbreaking, too.

      Harriet the Spy! So excited. I am also still super excited to be here sharing my millions of feelings about books. ;)
      Layla recently posted…The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

      • bethany

        Why “secretly” looking forward to SVH? AHHHH! SO GOOD. I think my fascination with twins started with SVH… and then a friend had twins and The Parent Trap and eek! Too bad there aren’t any on my side of the family ;) I’m so curious how it’ll feel to read them now as an adult — and because I’m pretty sure teen fiction was a little more conservative back then… -shrug-
        bethany recently posted…Stitch Fix #4 and #5 {catch-up}

  10. Pili

    I’m feeling so very sad that I didn’t really get to read this one with you all ladies! Now reading this discussion I know I MUST read this book but I also know that now might not exactly be the best for it. The anti-women feel of it it’s gonna affect me a lil too much, I feel!

    I’m gonna be looking forward to reading Harriet The Spy and I’m now gonna be checking Book Depository for an old edition of October’s book!
    Pili recently posted…Friday Reads: Mortal Danger by Ann Aguirre!!

    • Layla A

      You should definitely read it at some point, even if now isn’t the best time for it. The anti-women thing was maybe my biggest problem with the book (or at least the thing that I was aggravated by most consistently, and it’s definitely something I continue to think about). But there are lots of individual women in the books who are pretty great? It’s just that the perspective on women-as-a-whole seems lousy.

      I’m also excited about Harriet the Spy. I have a terrible memory, but can remember reading Harriet the Spy really clearly – on an airplane – and remember loooooving it. So I’m excited to revisit that. And October’s book, which I’ve never read! Eee.
      Layla A recently posted…The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke

    • Wendy Darling

      Yeah, I’ll chime in with Layla–the anti-woman feel is shocking, but it comes mostly later in the book, and doesn’t take over the whole thing. There are a few great women in it, too.

      YES FOR HARRIET. I love that book so much, I’m excited for those of you who haven’t met her before! She can be so AWFUL. :D

  11. Tanja

    Oh boy! I feel illiterate right now as this is actually the first time I hear of this book. Yes *runs to the library to find it* Will do that soon. Anyhow after reading your discussion I know it’s a must read. You had me with this sentence “This book took me out of the world I then knew and showed me a world simultaneously larger and smaller than my own.” That should be put into a book or something as wow! I’m so happy you enjoyed this one as well. Amazing post, ladies :)
    Tanja recently posted…Cover Reveal: The Artisans by Julie Reece

    • Layla A

      I know, it’s a lovely turn of phrase – well-played, Kim!

      There was SO MUCH to discuss in this book. Even though the discussion was involved, there’s still so much to say about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I hope you’re able to find the book! It definitely is a must-read. I wish I’d read it when a friend told me to, SIX YEARS AGO.

      Anyway. When you do, you should return to this post and let us know what you thought about it.
      Layla A recently posted…The Remarkable Journey of Miss Tranby Quirke

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh, please do give this one a chance sometime, Tanja! It’s a really terrific book, I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner.

      And I’ll tell you a secret: I like Kim’s writing so much, sometimes I’ll read her reviews all over again after I’ve finished a book she recommended. Sometimes for a third time. She’s good. So good.

  12. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Oh, and progress on the challenge — I’ve read and blogged about 6 books so far, so I think I’m going all right! Mostly I have been reading other books than the readalong picks, because I have such a long TBR list that I’m not re-reading many old favorites these days. However, I do greatly enjoy the discussions (like this one) which enable me to revisit them by proxy. I also was so glad that I was inspired to read All of a Kind Family for the first time for the readalong. Down a Dark Hall is one I also have never read; I will try to check it out!
    Lory @ Emerald City Book Review recently posted…Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

    • Wendy Darling

      Sounds like you’re well on your way to finishing the challenge this year, Lory! It’s been fun seeing what everyone’s reading that are not on our lists as well. I’m glad you were able to join us for AOAKF, though, and perhaps you[‘ll be interested in an upcoming one as well.

      DOWN A DARK HALL is being vexingly difficult, though–we might have to rethink our choice for October. *sigh*

        • Wendy Darling

          Ugh, yes. The books have been reissued a lot, but apparently the latest iteration (and possibly some of the others as well) have been modernized, with flat-screen TVs and slang. SO IMPORTANT IN A GOTHIC NOVEL, I’M SURE.

    • Layla A

      Ah, that’s a bummer. ILL can be tricky sometimes. I hope you’re able to read it eventually – set aside some time for it if it does come in for you! I’m also excited for Harriet the Spy – it’s been years since I read it, but I remember enjoying it as a middle-schooler. And yeah! So many good books I haven’t read – this, Down a Dark Hall, even, um, Sweet Valley High.
      Layla A recently posted…A Little Something Different

    • Wendy Darling

      I’m sorry your book didn’t come in in time, Brenda, but I am glad you’re going to read this anyway! Well worth your time.

      Hooray for Harriet, too! I’m finding some issues with our October pick DOWN A DARK HALL, though–we may have to make some changes to that one. A shame, because I love that book so much.

    • Layla A

      If you do ever decide to read it, know that it goes by faster than you’d think. Still not as fast as Harriet the Spy probably, though. Have you read that before? I remember reading it in middle school at some point.
      Layla A recently posted…A Little Something Different

    • Wendy Darling

      Those 500 pages just flew by, Carmel! I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

      I’m SO looking forward to Harriet, too. I bought the anniversary edition earlier this year in preparation.

  13. Ellen B

    Loved the discussion! A Tree Grows In Brooklyn is so rich, there is an incredible amount of talking points available. One issue I’m still confused over… Is this novel a feminist book? In my blog post, I wrote definitively, yes, but now I’m questioning this decision.
    Ellen B recently posted…Review — A Tree Grows In Brooklyn

    • Wendy Darling

      Ellen! I’m so glad you were able to speed read your way through this book. Did you do it in 24 hours?

      I think this is a very feminist book in many ways, as it champions independence, careers, higher education, etc. But I think it also displays some troubling views on women in general, too. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say it’s anti-feminist (I’m still mulling over what Layla had to say re: marriage being end-goal for women; I think that reflected more of Katie’s and the grandmother’s generation than Francie’s? I would need to go back again to look), but the way so many women are portrayed as self-serving, miserable, selfish, jealous creatures is really disturbing. As an adult, surely the author understood how little she knew of the women’s lives, as a child who only saw them in class every day? What if they’d been beaten by their husbands or scrimping to save money themselves or had been burned by caring for students before or were pressured into being nice to the rich kids for political reasons? I’m sure some of them (or even most of the ones she knew) WERE terrible, but to summarily dismiss so many women as a whole, and upon so skewed evidence, seems grossly unfair.

      However. I acknowledge that the author may not have shown us all the horrible things that were said or done to her as well. It’s tricky when you read these fictionalized memoirs–I think even if this had been an autobiography, I would have been put off a bit by that attitude towards women in general, which, as Kim says, never seems to go through any big change. As a novelization, though, in which you’re adding a narrative thread and your own ideals and outlook, it’s disappointing that it seems as though Francie/Betty is still stuck in that cycle of hatred. Understandable, maybe, but disappointing, from the perspective of both a reader and a human being.

      Um, sorry for the long-winded response. I’ll be by to read your review as soon as I get the chance! Thanks for joining us this month, Ellen.

  14. Mary @ BookSwarm

    It’s been a *really* long while since I read this book but I do remember liking that it sent me someplace I’d never been before, let me experience a life I’d never lead but could fully appreciate. And the love of literature is such a positive thing in this book. I need to read it again so I can agree with more of your points!! I’ve forgotten too much.
    Mary @ BookSwarm recently posted…Speed Date with Xavier: Night’s Honor by Thea Harrison

    • Wendy Darling

      How old were you when you read this, Mary? I’m fascinated by hearing how young people were when they first read this! It really does give you such a beautifully detailed snapshot of what life was like growing up in Brooklyn during that time. I’d actually love to see someone who is very familiar with Francie’s neighborhood (and the other places she described) compare/contrast how different New York is now from the 1950s.

      I hope you love the book just as much when you revisit it!

        • Wendy Darling

          That’s pretty young, though it’s older than some of the other responses I’ve been hearing. So interesting! It must’ve made for some great discussions in class, for those who read it as part of a school curriculum.

          I googled a bit after I finished the book, but I need to dig a little deeper into the fact vs. fiction stuff, what happened to Betty Smith et al., and the new Brooklyn vs 1950s Brooklyn. Surely SOMEONE’s written about this already.

  15. kindlemom1

    I remember starting this but I am not sure if I ever finished it or not! Now I kind of want to pick it back up again.
    Lovely discussion and review ladies! I hope you all have a wonderful weekend. :)
    kindlemom1 recently posted…Happy Labor Day Weekend!

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh yes, please do finish it sometime! It’s a lovely book. I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did, and even though the book was nearly 500 pages, it just flew by–I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next.

  16. Andrea @ Bookish

    I actually read this a couple years ago – missed the post where you were reading it for this month’s YA discussion – but loved it so much! I can’t remember all the details, which just means I need to read it again :), but I remember loving Francie and the relationship she had with her father, even if he wasn’t the best.

    I remember being very moved by this book, too. I could see myself in Francie when it came to the relationship she had with her brother. I have younger siblings and as much as it would pain me, I would do exactly what Francie did in regards to “giving up” her education for her brother. Even though they’re almost 22, they’re my little brother and sister and I’ll always have a desire to protect them – despite the fact that my brother is pretty much a beast!

    I love the line that Layla points out: “She’ll never have the hard times we had … and she’ll never have the fun we had, either.” I love Neeley’s outlook on his and Francie’s life. It’s so positive. I think it can say a lot about today’s world too. I didn’t have a lot of things younger kids do today technology wise so I had to make my own fun by going outside with my friends. I feel younger kids don’t do that as much. I spent almost all day during summer outside and I almost never see the kids across the street playing outside. Granted I don’t really know them too much, but get your butts outside and make a mud pie or something!

    After reading your discussion, a reread is definitely on the horizon!
    Andrea @ Bookish recently posted…Feature & Following: Trading Places

    • Wendy Darling

      Definitely sounds like re-reading time for you, Andrea! And yeah, I try not to spam people too much on social media (and frankly, we have so much going on that I don’t have the energy/time to repost a lot anyway), but that sometimes means that people miss things. But you can read HARRIET THE SPY with us! *poke*

      It’s lovely that you relate so much to Francie and her protectiveness of her little brother. Even though she was kind of forced into it by her mother, it’s not something someone can make you do unless you are committed to it. It’s funny, as an adult, I appreciate more and more how strong family ties are, and how those can never go away.

      Neeley’s a great character–I wish we’d had a little more time with him! But then again, I wish we had more time with everyone. This was such a sprawling book, but if there had been a sequel, I would have read it in a heartbeat.

      And I feel like such a grump, hah, but I totally relate to your third paragraph. My husband and I talk all the time about how tech-obsessed kids are now, and how much they miss by not talking to each other kids or adults, or actually playing games instead of videogames or watching tv. Andrea, I’ve become that old man who just wants everybody to play Kick the Can! You kids get off my lawn right this minute!!

  17. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    Kim’s comment puts it nicely: “This book took me out of the world I then knew and showed me a world simultaneously larger and smaller than my own.” I loved the immersion in Francie’s world, with all its pain and beauty. It’s such a gift when an author can observe and make you feel life in such intensity. This month I wrote about another book that delves into (often painful) family ties, A Solitary Blue by Cynthia Voigt.
    Lory @ Emerald City Book Review recently posted…Second Chances: A Solitary Blue

    • Wendy Darling

      That Kim does have a way with words, doesn’t she?

      I’m sad for Francie that there was more pain than beauty in her world for a long, long time, but I’m curious whether she got more joy as she grew up. I would think on the one hand, yes, because this book was apparently a massive bestseller when it came out. But the book also contains a lot of hard feelings that don’t seem to have abated by story’s end, which makes me wonder how her childhood continued to affect her relationships with other people.

      I do love many of the scenes where she explores her neighborhood or library, though. I especially loved the fantasy of going into that store and buying up the entire board so she’d be sure to swoop all the prizes! I totally daydreamed about stuff like that as a kid–so silly, so true.

      And thanks, I’ll come check out your review soon! Cynthia Voigt books were around a lot when I was growing up, but I don’t think I ever actually read one of her books.

    • Kim

      Well thanks :)

      I really loved historical fiction as a kid (thanks to AMERICAN GIRL, mostly) and this was like the more adult/painful/realistic version of those books. It opened up my eyes and made me see things differently. I loved how immersed I felt in Francie’s world. I felt wholly transported. It’s funny to me how fantasy and historical fiction both share that immersive world building aspect.

      I think my favorite quote from the book is when Francie prays something along the lines of. “Let me be something every minute of every day” and she goes on to list many things, the good and the bad, that she would like to be and finishes with “And when I sleep let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.”

      I feel that so strongly even now. Like, when I’m feeling particularly down I remember this quote and I remember that being sad means being alive. Living. And then I don’t feel quite so sad anymore.
      Kim recently posted…The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick: exclusive cover reveal + giveaway

  1. harriet the spy

    […] need to read/review 8 books before the end of the year. We went into that a bit more at the end of last month’s discussion, along with a preview of one of the prizes for one of our […]