June 2019 Book Club Discussion Questions: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith


Who’s ready for our next Pingel Sisters book club discussion? Discussion is now open for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Welcome to our Pingel Sisters book club discussion!

Hopefully, you are enjoying reading our June book club pick. Sorry, my questions are late, again. But don’t worry, I’ve already read both the July and August books and have copies of the October and November picks on my nightstand, so this should be the last time!

Discussion on our June book club pick is now open! We’d love to hear what you think about our discussion questions.

And the beauty of an online book club is that it doesn’t matter if you are free when discussion begins. Come back anytime that week to add your input to our book club discussion questions. Also, no need to dress up, or even get dressed, to join the conversation. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing.

Excited to hear everyone’s thoughts!

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June 2019 Book Club Pick

Book cover for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

A classic coming-of-age story that has enchanted readers for decades, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn chronicles young teen Francie Nolan as she grows up in the slums of Brooklyn. Covering poverty and the American dream, Betty Smith’s masterpiece points out the struggles of the poor families of the early 20th century. Yet, the enduring message of this classic book is one of hope for the future. Read more →

Find on:  Goodreads Amazon  |  Barnes & Noble  |  Book Depository

Discussion Rules

Let’s lay down some ground rule for our book club.

  1. You are not required to like the book.
  2. Keep it civil. Don’t attack other people’s opinions. We want discussion, not a shouting match.
  3. No profanity. Let’s keep it clean and family friendly.
  4. Engage with the other comments. We want to build a community of readers.
  5. Have fun!

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The A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Discussion Questions

View A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Discussion Questions as a PDF

Question 1: Did you like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Why or why not? Please be specific about what made you like it or dislike it?

I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn! I felt as if I was really immersed into the early 19th century Brooklyn. The characters came off as real people struggling with real problems. I loved how the story wasn’t necessarily plot driven. You were watching the evolution of a family over time, not necessarily waiting on your seat to see what would happen next. I admired Katie’s fierce work ethic, Johnny’s wish to be better, Francie’s drive to become educated, and Nealy’s playfulness and brotherly love.

Question 2: Why is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn considered a classic? What gives it lasting power that we are reading it almost a century later?

I think part of what gives A Tree Grows in Brooklyn lasting power is because it so aptly describes a period of time so removed from how we live. Modern day writers could never really hope t convey the same detailed sense of what life was like in the poor neighborhoods of Brooklyn in the early 19th century. Specifics like all the different ways Katie used stale bread in her cooking, or what school conditions were like, or how terrifying vaccinations were can’t truly be replicated in research. 

Also, the fact that the story is character driven, helps it stay important today. Children will always grow up and face the challenges of really seeing their parents as people. The poor will always struggle navigating their circumstances with the pride in who they are and the prejudices of others.

Question 3: Why do some people like Francie escape poverty while others do not? What can we learn from the Nolans that would apply to the modern day poor?

I love Betty Smith’s emphasis on education. To a certain extent, better education leads to better opportunities. Francie’s grandmother got scammed buying real estate because she couldn’t read. Francie’s mother had no formal training, so she had to rely on her physical labor. And education can take on different forms. How to handle money or how to present yourself during a job interview are different skills that many people are not taught.

However, we must admit a certain randomness in poverty. Katie works extremely hard, but her pregnancy and Johnny’s death wipe out the little stability she has. Death, medical issues, and just plain bad luck can easily retard any forward progress. Combined with things like insanely high rent, discrimination or lack of resources, being hard-working or educated doesn’t guarantee escape from poverty.

Question 4: Francie’s heritage is described as strong women “of invisible steel” on her mother’s side and “weak but talented” on her father’s side. By the end of the book, how are Francie and Neely both alike and different from their parents?

I love how Francie and Nealy seem to combine many of the good aspects of each of their parents. Nealy is handsome and exuberant like his father, yet determined to stay away from alcohol. I think he will grow up to have that same youthful energy as his father, but be able to put it into productive uses. He’ll have learned from his mother’s hard work that day dreams are nice, but reality requires real work.

Francie will have all the invisible steel of her mother, but hopefully tempered a bit. I forsee her eventually coming back to Brooklyn and becoming an activist for the neighborhood. I hope her attachment to home will help empower others without making them feel like charity cases. 

Question 5: What was one thing that particularly struck you about A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

The story of Francie’s English teacher rejecting her essays was a powerful one to me. Once Francie stopped writing about flowers and trees and began writing stories of her own life and her father, Francie’s teacher starting giving her lower grades. Her justification was that no one wants to read stories about the dirty poor. It makes me consider how I react to poverty – whether I reject hearing of other people’s lives because they live against how I think people should live. Where do my prejudices begin and how can I check them.

Question 6: Betty Smith paints the American Dream as living better than your parents did. Is this still the American Dream? How does the pursuit of a better life both help and hurt the characters in the novel (or people who live today)?

I thought Betty Smith’s interpretation of the American Dream was enlightening. It made me ponder what my own opinion of the American Dream would be. I can completely see where her definition comes from. As a parent myself, I fully want them to have a better life than I did. Not that I had a bad life, it’s just feels natural to want more for your children.

Yet, I think the conundrum falls in how we interpret the concept of more, or living better. Does that mean more money? More vacations and toys and higher status? While these things are nice, they don’t necessarily bring about a happy family. Francie’s increased salary as a newspaper reader made the day-to-day easier, but it stifled her ability to have a social life or get the education she needed. Yet, it’s hard to get an education while you starve.

I think that the American Dream is living better than your parents in the sense of having more freedom. Freedom to make your own choices, and follow the path you want. Freedom from the prejudices and discrimination of a generation ago. It means having the opportunity to become a doctor, but the ability to choose something else if you desire. Today, I think parents want their children to not have to struggle as much as they had to, but then the forget that character is built out of struggle. 

Question 7: For future reference, do you like occasionally jumping genres (classics, young adult, sci fi, fantasy) or would you rather stick to only contemporary adult fiction?


Discussion is now open! Excited to hear everyone’s thoughts!

Book Club Discussion Questions: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

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  • Reply Kelly June 26, 2019 at 6:47 pm

    I wasn’t able to get my hands on a copy of this book for the month of June. Have added to my TBR for the future though.

  • Reply Christine July 18, 2019 at 8:22 pm

    I would love to jump genres. I am currently reading a classic or something not on everyone’s current reading list and then a more recent, popular book. I like the variety.

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