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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

“Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in tenements districts.”

Like the Tree of Heaven, Francie Nolan is a young girl growing up poor in Brooklyn in the early 1900s determined to thrive and make a better life for herself.

The beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident. The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Harper Perennial Modern Classics (May 30, 2006)

Book Club Party Ideas for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn


Brown Jug and Books

Francie loved the library. She thought it was beautiful. The librarian had a little golden-brown pottery jug which stood at the end of her desk. She would display flowers in it as a season indicator. Tina displayed a brown jug with narcissus flower, a sign that spring is on its way. I was unable to find a supplier for a whiskey jug like the one Tina owned but an option would be these jug mugs. They come in a set of two and are smaller than the one above.

Brown Jug

Katie Nolan to her mother, “What must I do, Mother, what must I do to make a different world for her? How do I start?’ Her mother’s response, “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.” She suggests two great books: William Shakespeare and a Protestant Bible.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Tina’s husband has a great collection of Mather Work Incentive Posters. These posters were designed to improve worker productivity during the boom years between WWI and the Great Depression. These posters were printed in Chicago between 1923 and 1929 and were the perfect backdrop to our A Tree Grows in Brooklyn book club party. This one below reminded us of the fishing trip Johnny took with Francie, Neeley, and Little Tilly.

We played Cheap Charlie’s “pick for your penny” game. The majority of us ended up with a bag of candy…

Cheap Charlie Game

Lisa won The Brooklyn Cookbook, which was one of the fine prizes.

Cheap Charlie Game

Lynn ended up with the finest prize of all, this 1913 Handy Cook Book compliments of F. G. Smith, 60 Flatbush Ave. Brooklyn, NY. Tina found this rare cookbook on ebay.

1913 Brooklyn Cookbook

Tina and Tiffany made these beautiful Irish Blessing bookmarks for everyone to take home.

Irish Blessing Bookmark


Here are some great tunes to play at your book club party:

Music for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Book Club Menu for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Rustic American Cheese Tray which includes: handcrafted Italian salami, Truffle Tremor cheese, Mountina cheese, Barely Buzzed white cheddar and smokey blue cheese. We had a great time learning about and tasting the different cheeses.

Cheese tray with sausage, bread, grapes

Beef Stew served with egg noodles and sour dough bread. The meat in this stew is so tender and the bread is a must to sop up all that delicious gravy.

Beef Stew,Noodles, Bread

Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding with Bourbon Ice Cream Sauce was heaven to my taste buds.

Chocolate Bread Pudding Milk

Mixed Berry Pie is easy to make and is filled with not too sweet, not too tart berries – perfect.

mixed berry pie, chocolate croissant bread pudding

The penny chewy candy brought back a lot of memories.

Milk Punch is similar to the drink that the Nolan’s drank to bring in the New Year, 1917. There was Irish beer on hand in honor of Johnny and coffee with sweetened condensed milk served from the can.

Milk Punch with bourbon and brandy

Book Club Resources for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Ratings at the time this post was published

Goodreads: 4.23 stars (281,722 ratings)
Amazon: 4.5 stars (1,886 ratings)
LibraryThing: 4.34 stars (2,847 ratings)
My Rating: 4.5 stars


  • “A profoundly moving novel, and an honest and true one. It cuts right to the heart of life. . . . If you miss A Tree Grows in Brooklyn you will deny yourself a rich experience.” —New York Times
  • “Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely–to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father’s child–romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother’s child, too–deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive. Betty Smith’s poignant, honest novel created a big stir when it was first published over 50 years ago. Her frank writing about life’s squalor was alarming to some of the more genteel society, but the book’s humor and pathos ensured its place in the realm of classics–and in the hearts of readers, young and old.” — Emilie Coulter
  • “One of my favorite books of all time, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, by Betty Smith is a classic… The characters jump off the page and into your heart. Ms. Smith has a way of making you identify with each person, but with Francie most of all… I suggest this book for readers of all ages. Anyone who loves a good story will undoubtedly come to adore this novel as much as I do.” —

Purchase A Tree Grows in Brooklyn at your favorite bookseller

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Book Club Discussion Questions for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

From May contain spoilers

  1. In a particularly revealing chapter of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,Francie’s teacher dismisses her essays about everyday life among the poor as “sordid,” and, indeed, many of the novel’s characters seem to harbor a sense of shame about their poverty. But they also display a remarkable self-reliance (Katie, for example, says she would kill herself and her children before accepting charity). How and why have our society’s perceptions of poverty changed – for better or worse – during the last one hundred years?
  2. Some critics have argued that many of the characters in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn can be dismissed as stereotypes, exhibiting quaint characteristics or representing pat qualities of either nobility or degeneracy. Is this a fair criticism? Which characters are the most convincing? The least?
  3. Francie observes more than once that women seem to hate other women (“they stuck together for only one thing: to trample on some other woman”), while men, even if they hate each other, stick together against the world. Is this an accurate appraisal of the way things are in the novel?
  4. The women in the Nolan/Rommely clan exhibit most of the strength and, whenever humanly possible, control the family’s destiny. In what ways does Francie continue this legacy?
  5. What might Francie’s obsession with order – from systematically reading the books in the library from A through Z, to trying every flavor ice cream soda – in turn say about her circumstances and her dreams?
  6. Although it is written in the third person, there can be little argument that the narrative is largely from Francie’s point of view. How would the book differ if it was told from Neeley’s perspective?
  7. How can modern readers reconcile the frequent anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments that characters espouse throughout the novel?
  8. Could it be argued that the main character of the book is not Francie but, in fact, Brooklyn itself?

The Author and Awards

Betty Smith author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Betty Smith was born Elisabeth Wehner on December 15, 1896, the same day (though five years earlier) as her fictional heroine Francie Nolan. The daughter of German immigrants, she grew up poor in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the very world she recreates with such meticulous detail in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith wrote many novels and had a long career as a dramatist, writing one-act and full-length plays for which she received both the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship. She died in 1972.

The Movie

Tina and Tiffany had A Tree Grows in Brooklyn DVD playing in the TV room. This classic was directed in 1945 by Elia Kazan and starred Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan, Dorothy McGuire as Katie Nolan and James Dunn as Johnny Nolan. Peggy Ann Garner won a special Oscar for her performance.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn DVD

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Photo Album

Cheese Tray

Tina gave us the rundown on her fabulous sausage and cheese tray.

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