Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Writing lessons learned from A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN


I recently finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. From Goodreads:

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.

I'm not gonna lie...I thought I'd never finish this book. Maybe it was because I've become accustomed to reading fast-paced thrillers and YA. Maybe it was because the point of view hopped from head to head. Or maybe it's because this book was originally published in 1943, when authors could take their time telling quieter stories. Whatever the reason, I'm so glad I stuck with it and finished. It was a wonderful story.

Despite the generation gap, I learned many writing lessons from this book. Here are a few:
  • Story world, no matter how small, feels big to the main character. Francie Nolan lived in Brooklyn, and although bodies of water weren't far away, she didn't see the ocean until she stood on a rooftop at 13 years old. Her world consisted of different neighborhoods within Brooklyn, and the shops, tenements, and people that populated it.
  • Draw from our own unique experiences. At the back of the book, there was a section that discussed the author and how she'd grown up in Brooklyn, much like her main character. I wasn't surprised to learn this. Betty Smith created rich character and setting details from her memories. The poverty, the struggle to survive, the neighborhood politics--this was all beautifully and painfully memorialized by an author who had lived through what her main character was living through.
  • Choose a symbol to represent the main character. A sturdy tree grows deep roots. It has strength and perseverance even in the harshest conditions. So did Francie Nolan, the main character. I loved the parallels between the strong symbol and the equally strong main character.
  • Memorable characters have quirky and/or distinctive details. Francie's aunt called her boyfriends or husbands "Johnny," no matter what their real names were. Francie's father was mellow when he was drunk, and boisterous when sober. Her mother spoke the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. Her uncle considered himself a failure, became a one-man band, and ran away from his family. These unique details had staying power, and added to the richness of the book.
  • Create a strong visual where the character realizes there's more to life than what they've known. From the rooftop, Francie finally saw the river and wondered what excitement lay across the bridge. While venturing into another neighborhood, she saw a nicer school and conspired with her father to attend this school. This showed her there were other attainable goals she could reach. The reader experiences these wonders along with Francie, and we root for her to branch out and see more of the world.
I'm glad I won my battle with my short attention span and finished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It's one of those memorable stories I'll always carry with me.

Have you read this book? What was your impression? And if you're read any of the classics, which one is your favorite?

34 comments:

  1. It is one of my all-time favorite books. I like your list of what you learned from reading it. True that the style is much different from today's YA novels. Maybe why I don't like today's YA novels, because I grew up on books like this one.

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    1. Karen, excellent point. There's definitely something to be said about the old style, huh?

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  2. I haven't read this one yet, but I've heard of it and keep meaning to.

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    1. Jennifer, if you read it, I sure hope you love it!

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  3. Julie, how funny! I was just talking about this book the other day with my family when we were discussing listening to books on long road trips. I told my sister that she could travel to North Carolina (a 14-hour drive one-way) and back on "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn."

    So, obviously, I listened to the audio of this book. I don't think I could EVER read it. It's just too long. But I do know that the next time I travel to North Carolina, I'll be sure to get the audio version of this book.

    It is absolutely one of my favorites. :)

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    1. Oh my goodness, I'll bet the audio version of this book is amazing. I could "read" some of the accents, but boy, it would be fun to "hear" them.

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  4. I just may have to re-read this one now, Julie. I read it so long ago. Like KarenG, I grew up on these kinds of books and do not enjoy current YA, especially all the vampire and horror stuff. You have to take your time with books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, or Henry James novels for that matter. And we have so little time these days. Sigh!
    Karen

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    1. Karen, you're right...these types of books take time, and I almost didn't give it the time it deserved. But now I'm so glad that I've read this wonderful story!

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  5. "Francie's aunt called her boyfriends or husbands "Johnny," no matter what their real names were." Did this ever confuse you? Did you always know "which Johnny" it was? :o)

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    1. Jessica, you're so funny! All the Johnny's morphed together until the last one. He finally got fed up with it and said, "My name is Steve!"

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  6. Oh, this was one of my favorite books when I was in my twenties. Then about ten years ago I came across a newer, abridged version, and much of the richness was gone. So recently I found the older version in a used book store, and I'm so happy to have the real deal again. This is a wonderful, rich read, as you so well expressed. Francine is one of the most interesting characters I've come across in literature. Her story just lingers on, long after the last page.

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    1. "Lingers" is the perfect word for this story. I'm still thinking about it!

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  7. I read this book many, many years ago & barely remember it, but, as a writer, I so appreciate the symbolism of the tree and hope I have achieved the same with the strong symbolism in my own novel.

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    1. Nancy, I'll bet you've achieved exactly what you've hoped for :)

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  8. I probably couldn't do it. Squirrel!! See? But it sounds awesome. I love he symbolism. You're so good at dissecting these books!

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    1. Thanks, Lisa. I came "this close" to giving up on it, but I'm glad I didn't. It's a story that will always stay with me.

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  9. Haven't read this one. The characters do sound quirky!

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    1. Alex, I could have gone on and on about the quirky characters. They were amazing AND memorable :)

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  10. I haven't read this, but I know of it. It's been on my reading list, but my list keeps growing! I should move it up and read it by this summer.

    My favorite classic is To Kill a Mockingbird, and my favorite children's classics are Anne of Green Gables and On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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    1. Oh, Laura, I love your taste! Mockingbird and Anne of Green Gables are two of my absolute favorites. And that reminds me...it's been too long since I've seen those movies.

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  11. Hi Julie, another exceptional review. It appears you almost put this work down... I'm wondering in this particular case, what would you have done to not give that option to the reader? We live in that fast paced thriller, action, need it now world. A shame to lose a great work. If you could do one thing to not allow the reader that feeling... what would it be?

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    1. At first glance, there was no urgency to the story. No "I must know what happens next." I was definitely curious how the character's life would turn out, and whether or not she'd escape poverty. That's what kept me reading. That, and the knowledge that it was a beloved classic :)

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  12. I read this book in high school, and again maybe ten years later. Back then, it was one of my favorite books. I totally agree with the memorable characters - not an easy story to forget.

    Btw, I tagged you this week on my blog. No pressure.

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    1. Loree, thanks so much! I'll go check it out :)

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  13. I ADORE this book, and not just because I'm Irish. I haven't read it since high school so I'm revisiting it in an audiobook. Now there is some seriously fab world building going on in this story. Glad you stuck it out.

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    1. And I'll bet its so fun to "hear" these voices. Smith did an excellent job of making those sounds come to life in print, but I'll bet it'll be fun to hear it. Just like with The Help.

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  14. Glad you stuck with it. I cry my eyes out every time I read it. I just absolutely love it. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis.

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    1. Sarah! You're the reason I read this book! I truly is a memorable book, and I'm so glad I read it.

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  15. This is one of those books that I've always 'known' about, but didn't actually know anything about. I'll have to give it a try one day.

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    1. Sarah, it definitely takes time, but it's one of those stories I'm really glad I read :)

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  16. I read this book AGES ago. Thanks for the memories and the great points. The tree symbol is classic and one so many books lack.

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  17. I haven't read this one but I've heard great things about it. The literary novels I find time for are few and far between. If only I had more time...

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  18. I love those books that have characters you remember long after you've read the story. Those distinctive qualities really do work! :)

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