Wednesday, December 31, 2008

200TH POST: A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN

Raise your glass of champagne (or raspberry ginger ale punch, at our place!) to celebrate not only the start of 2009, but the 200th post here at the PlanetEsme Plan! Since the blog's inception, over five hundred titles have been personally reviewed and recommended here, to add to the archive of over a thousand books at the PlanetEsme site (now on the right scrollbar)! So CHEERS, everyone, and heartfelt thanks for your support over the years, as well as your support of HOW TO GET YOUR CHILD TO LOVE READING and my other titles. In honor of my 200th post, I ask that you in indulge me in my soapboxing (bookboxing?) and a more personally grounded review as I share a favorite passage from this, one of my all-time favorite books, one that I can always look at and be reminded of the work that needs to be done in the world, as well to find the inspiration to try and do it.

A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith (Harper). I still remember when my father brought it home for me when I was about twelve years old. The first thing I noticed is that it was 430 pages, or three thumbs thick, and no pictures! But when I finished the last page, I wished there was a magic button I could press that would make 430 more pages appear. Here, in the character of Francie, was my sister, my friend, a girl who lived in the city, who wanted to read all the books in the library, who lied about her address to go to a better school. This book, first published in 1943, is about a second generation Austrian/Irish American family struggling in the slums of Williamsburg, New York at the turn of the last century. It's a book you can read at different times in your life and find something fresh and applicable with every revisit. I re-read it this year, somewhat fearfully, as I wondered if it would be as good as I remembered, but just as it did twenty-five-some years ago, it kept me up at night to turn the pages. I marvel at the book's honesty and insight and sheer beauty, the author's unbelievable capacity to develop so many characters at once and to deliver the reader to a place of caring. I can think of no other book that captures the feeling of being alive so completely, and from so many perspectives. If you only saw Elia Kazan's black-and-white movie version, you are missing a lot! I think this entirely brave masterpiece might be counted as the first contemporary coming-of-age and the young adult novel, written long before the work of the venerable Judy Blume. I was impressed as a young girl to learn that this book when it was first published was given to prison inmates to help them learn empathy. Ahead of its time when it was written, this book deserves to be rediscovered now, and widely included in curriculum.

There are more moving and memorable scenes in this novel than I can count, but one that I always think of in December is when the children, Francie and Neely, win a Christmas tree by withstanding a ritual in which the owner of the local lot thrusts leftovers at courageous volunteers at midnight, and if they can withstand the impact without falling, they may keep the tree. Francie and Neely score the biggest tree of all! As they are bringing the huge, bustling pine up the stairs to their tenement with their cheerful father, their mother, Katie, has an internal soliloquy:

Katie stood alone on the top of the last flight of steps with her hands clasped before her. She listened to the singing. She looked down and watched their slow progress up the stairs. She was thinking deeply.

"They think this is so good," she thought. "They think it's good--the tree they got for nothing and their father playing up to them and the singing and the way the neighbors are happy. They think they're mighty lucky that they're living and it's Christmas again. They can't see we live on a dirty street in a dirty house among people who aren't much good. Johnny and the neighbors can't see how pitiful it is that our neighbors have to make happiness out of this filth and dirt. My children must get pit of this. They must come to more than Johnny or me or all these people around us. But how is this to come about? Reading a page from those books every day and saving pennies in the tin-can bank isn't enough. Money! Would that make it better for them? Yes, it would make it easy. But no, the money wouldn't be enough. McGarrity owns the saloon standing on the corner and he has a lot of money. His wife wears diamond earrings. But her children are not as good or smart as my children. They are mean and greedy towards others because they have the things to taunt poor children with. I have seen the McGarrity girl eating from a bag of candy on the street while a ring of hungry children watched her. I saw those children looking at her and crying in their hearts. And when she couldn't eat any more, she threw the rest down the sewer rather than give it to them. Ah, no, it isn't the money alone. The McGarrity girl wears a different hair bow each day and they cost fifty cents a piece and that would feed the four of us here for one day...My Francie wears no hair bow but her hair is long and shining. Can money buy things like that? No. That means there must be something biggerthan money. Miss Jackson teaches at the Settlement House and she has no money. She works for charity. She lives in a little room there on the top floor. She has only the one dress but she keeps it clean and pressed. Her eyes look straight into yours when you talk with her. When you talk to her, it's like you used to be sick but hearing her voice, it's making you well again. She knows about things--Miss Jackson. She understands aboutthings. She can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean and like an actress is a play; someone you can look at but who is too fine to touch. There is that difference between her and Mrs. McGarrity who has so much money...So what is the difference between her and Miss Jackson who has no money?"

An answer came to Katie. It was so simple that a flash of astonishment that felt like pain shot through her head. Education! That was it! It was education that made the difference! Education would pull them out of the grime and dirt. Proof? Miss Jackson was educated, McGarrity wasn't. Ah! That's what Mary Rommely, her mother had been telling her all those years. Only her mother did not have the one clear word: education!

..."Francie is smart," she thought. She must go to High School and maybe beyond that. She's a learner and she'll be somebody someday. Butt when she gets educated, she will grow away from me...Maybe when she gets education, she will be ashamed of me--the way I talk. But she will have too much character to show it. Insteadshe will try to make me different. She will come to see me and try to make me live in a better way and I will be mean to her because I'll know she's above me...Already she is growing away from me; she will fight to get away soon. But Neely will never leave me, and that is why I love him best. He will cling to me and understand me. I want him to be a doctor. He must be a doctor. Maybe he will play the fiddle, too. There is music in him. He got that from his father. Yes, his father has the music in him but it does him no good. It is ruining him. If he couldn't sing, those men who treat him to drinks wouldn't want him around. What good is the fine way he can sing when it doesn't make him or us any better? With the boy, it will be different. He will be educated. I must think out ways. We'll not have Johnny with us long..."

Thus Katie figured out everything in the moments it took them to climb the stairs. People looking up at her---at her smooth pretty vivacious face--had no way of knowing about the painfully articulated resolves formulating in her mind.
Now, with some life behind me and in our modern times, I know there are people who read thousands of books and are well-spoken and educated, but use their fine degrees the way the McGarrity girl uses her candy. Katie knows that education is the catalyst for change, but what Katie doesn't know, can't know from her circumstances, I think, is that education is not an end, but a beginning. I hope that in the New Year, and with all the changes that are expected on the horizon for our country, that we can move from education being a stick of candy to the sweeter look of understanding and compassion in someone's eyes. We can learn to use what bounty we have, and work from the scaffolding that opportunities for education has given us to end the kind of terrible poverty that is described in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, and that is still so rife. I hope we can make Katie's wish come true for all of the Francies and Neelys in the world. A great book in the hands of a rich child is the same great book in the hands of a poor child. For many children, the authors and characters they connect with through books will be the first people outside of their own communities that they will encounter. For many children, picture books will be the only art education they receive. A child who discovers the magical transport of literature will never be as bored or lonely as the child who has not, and is more likely to succeed in school. So do your part to equalize education, and, as Gandhi suggested, be the change you wish to see in the world: make the resolution to read aloud a book to a child every day!

Also of interest:
Another anniversary! Congratulations to friends at Just One More Book on their 500th (!) podcast!!!

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.
More Esmé stuff at www.planetesme.com.

14 comments:

scribbler said...

BRAVO sister!

Andrea -- Just One More Book!! Podcast said...

Congratulations, Esme! 200 posts! 1000 books! Wow!

It has been wonderful getting to know you over the wires and even more wonderful to have the memory of that gorgeous brunch in your oasis of children's literature in Chicago 2007.

Wishing you much happiness, great health and prosperity in 2009 and always!

Andrea

Andrea -- Just One More Book!! Podcast said...

ooooooh. just noticed ourselves in your footnote. We're honoured! Thanks!!

Brenda Ferber said...

Congratulations Esme! I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, too, and I'm so glad my kids are reading it in their 8th grade language arts class this year.
Happy New Year!

Jen Robinson said...

Congratulations, Esme! They've been 200 excellent posts, too! Here's to many hundreds more. Happy New Year!

Anamaria (bookstogether) said...

Congratulations, Esme! I was delighted to find your blog after having read some of your books (and starting my own--books AND blog!). And I remember reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and loving it, too. I think it might be time for a reread--thanks for the reminder!

Stella said...

Congratulations Esme! You are an inspiration to a lot of us! To a productive 2009 with joys and happiness along the way!

Indy Molly said...

Esme,

What can a 40 something who is slef taught in children's literature do to spread the joys of lit? Waht do you think of degrees in Shildren's Lit? Is there a place for me besides being a teacher or librarian? How can the needs you addressed be meat by people like me?

Esme Raji Codell said...

Hey, Indy Molly! Open a bookroom! E-mail me your address and I'll send you a how-to pamphlet. I hope to organize bookroom enthusiasts in the coming year.

Mary Lee said...

Happy 200! HUZZAH!

I loved seeing your spotlight on A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. I can't count how many times I've re-read that book. Loved it then, love it now.

My verification word is bookergy. Your blog and your work has bookergy.

Anonymous said...

Esme, this post made me call my mom and ask her to Fed Ex me my copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and then, I couldn't wait, and had to go buy a copy (from my local independent bookseller, at that!). Your ability to bring personal heart and soul to your reviews (always of the best books around!) is a dazzling gift for all of us. Thank you for commitment to keeping us all well-read, inspired, and pushing us to put the very best of children's literature in to children's hands. Amen for Esme in 2009!

xo Lisa

Deanna H. said...

Congrats! I always enjoy your posts and hope to enjoy many, many more.

Katie said...

I read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" probably two or three years ago. I definitely enjoyed it!

Mary Ann Scheuer said...

Esme, thank you so much for all your reviews, and even more for spreading your infectious love of children and children's literature. Keep the reviews coming! There's a hungry audience out there waiting to spread the love!

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