A Book a Day

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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake
for a library-loving author.
** Linger to consider and compare
three classic young adult novels.
** Savor a last ½ cup smiling
over one child’s discovery of a beloved book.
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First Sip:

It was a good thing that she
got herself into this other school. It showed her
there were other worlds besides the world
she had been born into, and these
other worlds were not unattainable.

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
chapter 23


Brooklyn Bridge
photo by David Clanon

Slice of Cake:

Here are 3 things I learned this week about Betty Smith.

*** Betty Smith had to drop out of school as a young teen.

She needed to get a job to help support her family.
As an adult she tried several times to get more education.

She went back to high school after moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband.

The principal of Ann Arbor High School thought it
‘unusual for a married woman to be a high school junior
but could find no law against it.’

– Carol Siri Johnson 2

Later Betty Smith attended both the University of Michigan and Yale University—
both only by “special dispensation.” 3


*** Betty Smith was an award-winning playwright.

She won the Avery Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan for her 3-act play Jonica Starrs (1931).

At Yale, she published seven one-act plays, including Lawyer Lincoln (1939) about Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer working up several drafts of a marriage proposal between two especially shy clients. 4


*** The neighborhood library that Betty Smith walked to as a young girl is still there.

Leonard Library opened in 1908, when Betty Smith was 11 years old.

Leonard Library is one of Brooklyn’s original
Carnegie branches and is the iconic library
visited by Francie in Betty Smith’s
beloved book,
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
– Brooklyn Public Library website 1

The Leonard Library today is a busy, popular library specially known for its children’s programs.

In 2008, to honor Betty Smith, library staff along with
the New York City Parks Dept and some of Betty Smith’s family planted a tree.
It’s next to the library.


Happy 122nd Birthday
** Betty Smith

– born December 15, 1896
in the Williamsburg neighborhood of
Brooklyn, New York


Linger Awhile:

Been thinking this week about the three favorite books that I read over and over again when I was growing up.

From Little Women, set in New England during the Civil War;
to Anne of the Island, set in in the Canadian Maritimes at the turn of the century;
to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, set in New York during WW1.

They have a lot in common.

All three stories take place along North America’s Atlantic coast;
All three take place between 1860 and 1918.

All three are novels about girls who loved to read books and wanted to write stories.

All three girls were raised by strong, hard-working women—
and by men whom the girls adored.

All three of these men, over the course of the novels, either died or were gravely ill.

All three books are coming-of-age stories.

Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943 at age 47.

Of the three novels, it’s the only one that’s not set contemporaneously.
Smith based it on her own childhood, and set in the time of her own childhood.

The story begins in 1912 when the main character, Francie Nolan, is 11 years old.
(Betty Smith herself would have been 15 in 1912.)
By the end of the novel, it’s 1918, and Francie is 16½ and heading to college in Ann Arbor.

Of the three novels, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is the most ambitious in its social commentary.

detail, Brooklyn Bridge
photo by Carlyn Crystal

Here is a passage about Francie and her younger brother going in to get vaccine shots.
It’s a passage that has really stayed with me...

The nurse pulled up her sleeve
and swabbed a spot clean on her left arm.

Francie saw the white doctor coming towards her with
the cruelly-poised needle… She closed her eyes waiting to die.
Nothing happened, she felt nothing.
She opened her eyes slowly… The doctor was still there,
poised needle and all. He was staring at her arm in distaste…

“Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night.
I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap.
Just look at that arm, nurse.”

The doctor was a Harvard man… obligated to
put in a few hours at one of the free clinics. He was going into a
smart practice in Boston when his internship was over…

The nurse was a Williamsburg girl. You could tell that
by her accent.
The child of poor Polish immigrants,
she had been ambitious, worked days in a sweatshop and
gone to school at night. Somehow she had gotten her training…
She didn’t want anyone to know she had come from the slums…

Francie thought the nurse might say something like:
“Maybe this little girl’s mother works and didn’t have time to wash her”
…Or, “You know how it is, Doctor, children will play in dirt.”
But what the nurse actually said was,
“I know. Isn’t it terrible? I sympathize with you, Doctor.
There is no excuse for these people living in filth.”

A person who pulls himself up…has two choices.
Having risen above his environment, he can forget it;
or, he can rise above it and never forget it
and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for
those he has left behind him in the cruel up climb.
The nurse had chosen the forgetting way.
Yet, as she stood there,
she knew that years later she would be haunted
by the… face of that starveling child and
…wish bitterly that she had said a comforting word…
She had the knowledge that she was small
but she lacked the courage to be otherwise.

When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of
hurt started by the doctor’s words…drove out all other feeling.
While the nurse was expertly tying a strip of
gauze around her arm… Francie spoke up.

“My brother is next.
His arm is just as dirty as mine
so don’t be surprised.
And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.”
They stared at this bit of humanity who, had become so strangely articulate…
“Besides it won’t do no good. He’s a boy and he
don’t care if he is dirty.”
She turned,
stumbled a little, and walked out of the room.

As the door closed, she heard the doctor’s surprised voice.
“I had no idea she’d understand what I was saying.”
She heard the nurse say, “Oh, well,”
on a sighing note.

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
chapter 18


“Half Cup More”

Like the library in Betty Smith’s Brooklyn neighborhood, my hometown had a Carnegie Library. The children’s section was downstairs. What I remember most is a whole shelf of Oz books by L. Frank Baum. The building is still there, but the Vacaville Carnegie Library (unlike Smith’s in Brooklyn) is no longer a functioning library. Instead…

In 1970, when I was 8 years old, there was great excitement in my little town. The new library had just opened!
Most amazing of all—it had air conditioning. No more sweating out those 108 ͦ
summer days! I could walk to the library, find an empty chair, and enjoy a good book in the cooled air.

Francie thought that all the books
in the world were in that library and
she had a plan about reading all the books in the world.
She was reading a book a day
in alphabetical order and not skipping the dry ones.
She had been reading a book a day for a long time now and
she was still in the B’s.
…For all her enthusiasm, she had to admit
some of the B’s had been hard going.
But Francie was a reader. She read everything…

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
chapter 2

My mother regularly brought my sister and brother and me to the library. Often she would help us find books we’d like. But I remember one day seeing a book on the shelf (was it maybe, daringly, in the grown-up section?).

It was a green hardback, no dust cover, just the title and author’s name on the binding. No judging this book by its cover, and somehow that appealed to me. I liked the idea of going into a book with no expectations. I read a few pages and then checked it out.

It was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.


Take-Away Box

In the library she looked quickly
at the little golden-brown pottery jug which stood
at the end of the librarian’s desk.
It was a season indicator.
In the fall it held a few sprigs of bittersweet
and at Christmas time it held holly.
She knew spring was coming, even if there was snow on the ground,
when she saw pussy willow in the bowl.
And today, on this summer Saturday of 1912,
what was the bowl holding?… Nasturtiums!
Red, yellow, gold and ivory-white.
A head pain caught her between the eyes at the taking in
of such a wonderful sight…
She thought, “I will have such
a brown bowl…when I get big and have
my own home…I’ll have a desk like this in my parlor
and white walls … and
a row of shining yellow pencils
always sharpened for writing and a
golden-brown bowl with a flower
or some leaves or berries always in it and
books, books, books.

– from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Betty Smith
chapter 2


Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


History of Brooklyn Public Library
Leonard Library, Williamsburg

Carol Siri Johnson
in her dissertation about Betty Smith
City University of New York
Dr Johnson is now an associate professor
Department of Humanities, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Dictionary of North Carolina Biography
edited by William S. Powell
copyright 1979-1996
University of North Carolina Press.
website: State Library of North Carolina

One-Acts by ‘Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ Author Betty Smith
to premiere in, yes, Brooklyn, Nov. 13-22, 2003

by Robert Simonson
Oct 09, 2003


Please note:
Whenever you click on ‘Post Comment’ your comments always come to me first. Then I post them below.
If you’d rather they stay between us, just let me know.
© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

1 thought on “A Book a Day”

  1. Francie Nolan Is Rad

    Oh how I so love A Tree Grows In Brooklyn! It was my “assigned Summer reading” before I entered Convent of the Sacred Heart. I’d never heard of such a thing (pre-homework?!) and was intimidated. And then I read it several times before my first day of Freshman year. And then I got to discuss it!! I truly could not understand the strange new girls who saw it as “work”.

    I sat on that balcony with Francie. I sucked on the dregs of that pickle. I painstakingly tried to make his paper dickie last as long as possible.

    She was the coolest character I’d ever met at that point (1994?).

    This made me feel excited and adventurous: “Betty Smith wrote A Tree Grows in Brooklyn in 1943 at age 47.”

    This was my exact relationship with Milo Versus The Outside World:
    “My brother is next.
    His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be surprised.
    And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.”

    And this was one of my secret favorite things about my youth- it was…personal- just for me- hard to come by in my busy family life- it would make me feel powerful! To discover a book on my own!
    “No judging this book by its cover, and somehow that appealed to me. I liked the idea of going into a book with no expectations. I read a few pages and then checked it out.

    It was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.”

    I relate to how your mind works. And greatly appreciate the research you do.

    Over the past year, I’ve discovered that I do the exact same thing… but with music.

    If I have an hour or two “off the clock” I’ll go into deep google mode finding the original singer of a beloved classic song. And then I’ll look up the composer, the musicians who played on the original recording, and on, and one, etc. It’s thrilling.

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