Heather E. Schwartz writes children's books for educational publishers including Scholastic, Capstone Press, Teacher Created Materials and Lerner Publishing Group, and brands including Disney, Sesame Street, Time for Kids, and the Smithsonian.
She is also an improviser with The Mopco Improv Theatre, in Schenectady, where she collaborates with other artists to act as writer, director, producer, and player in shows created on the spot in front of an audience.
Sturdy and scrappy: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
By Heather E. Schwartz
I want to say I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. But if feels more accurate to say I ate it.
You know how when you’re a kid your parents encourage you to eat a balanced, nutritious diet so you’ll grow healthy bones and teeth? Carrots to help you see in the dark, that sort of thing? I swear, I grew my brain cells on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I didn’t read it. I swallowed it whole. I devoured and absorbed it.
A friend of mine read the book first. She was carrying it to school one day and had it in her arms at the bus stop. The cover showed a young girl with long, dark hair. Maybe it was a photograph of a model standing in for the main character. She looked like a regular person, a kid, like me. As soon as I saw her, I knew I had to read that book.
“Is it good?” I asked my friend, already knowing the answer. Because how could it not be? It was obviously a realistic story about a girl — a coming-of-age tale. Everything I ever wanted in a book.
Somehow, I got my own copy, a paperback with the same cover, now held together with Scotch tape, though pieces of it have still managed to crack off. The pages are brown with age and the type is old-fashioned—tiny and tight. When the book was new, though, what did I care? I was around 11, the age of the protagonist, Francie Nolan, at the start of the story. I had strong fresh eyes built for reading.
Every reader knows the feeling you get at the end of a great book, when you wish it wasn’t over. Of course I felt that way when I reached the conclusion of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. By that point, Francie had completed her journey. Almost 17 years old now, she’d come of age. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to know what might happen to her next. The author, Betty Smith, offered enough hints about Francie’s future to satisfy my curiosity. What I really wanted was to continue living in the world of this story, a rich and colorful early 1900s New York City. A place where modern life was explained through anecdotes about made up people living their fictional lives decades earlier.
I didn’t plan to stay. How can you stay when the story is over? I read it again. And again. In fact, I never really stopped reading this book. I read it a couple of years ago. Maybe I’ll start rereading it tomorrow.
When I discovered A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I assumed it was a book meant for children or teens. I related to the young girl, Francie, described as being made up of all the people on her mother Katie’s side (the Rommelys) and her father Johnny’s side (the Nolans)—and more.
“She was a mosaic of her grandmother Rommely’s mysticism, her tale-telling, her great belief in everything and her compassion for the weak ones. She had a lot of her grandfather Rommely’s cruel will… She had Johnny’s sentimentality without his good looks. She had all of Katie’s soft ways and only half of the invisible steel of Katie. She was made up of all these good and these bad things,” Smith wrote.
And wasn’t I, too? Wasn’t I also made up of good and bad things, despite the burden of the image I cultivated as a child, the reputation I’d already earned as mature, responsible, polite, and studious?
For years, I read the book as Francie and then one day I realized I was older than her mother, Katie, only 35 when the story wraps up.
Rereading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an adult was like when you go to your 30-year high school reunion and you see a “kid” you knew in kindergarten and declare that he looks, “exactly the same!” In your mind, you really see him the way he looked when he was five. And your spouse says later, “That guy from your kindergarten class? He didn’t even look especially young to me. He was a 48-year-old man with grey hair.”
First edition cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, first published in 1943.
Betty Smith at her desk in this undated photo by Ann Rosener
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn hasn’t changed at all. And yet, for me, of course it has. Time passes, regardless of the images you hold in your mind. When I read it now, it’s as I remember it, but each time, I also bring my own new experiences to the work Smith created. The truth is, I still relate to Francie Nolan, age 11, 12, 13, as she’s coming of age. Because isn’t it silly to think that the process ends in young adulthood? You come of age and then you’re done?
Smith’s words helped me navigate and narrate my own life when I was a child and a teenager, before I knew coming of age was a bit of a myth. Now that I know, why would I ever feel the time has come to put away this book for good? Sturdy and scrappy as a tree growing in the tenement district, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is there for me still, as my own story continues.