This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: What classic did you read – and love – because it was recommended to you? Well, the real answer is just about all of them.
Seriously. Pride and Prejudice because it was Kathleen Kelley’s favorite book in You’ve Got Mail. To Kill a Mockingbird because my sister-in-law said it was her favorite book. The Scarlet Pimpernel because my 12th grade world lit teacher read the first chapter aloud to us and I loved it. Their Eyes Were Watching God because my anthropology teacher recommended it. EVERYTHING from The Great American Read back in 2018.
In fact, I think I’ll go ahead and talk about a book from The Great American Read today. Because this is a book that I not only wouldn’t have read, but wouldn’t have even known EXISTED if it wasn’t for that PBS special. I was so inspired by listening to Noelle Santos,* owner of the small indie bookstore The Lit Bar, describe how it was the first book she saw herself in, and how it made her a reader, that I knew I just had to pick the book up. And I loved it.
*you can watch that clip here
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a coming of age story about a young daughter of immigrants living in poverty in early 20th century New York. Francie’s life is hard: her family can’t always afford food, her father is an alcoholic, her teachers abuse her, her neighborhood is dangerous. But she finds solace in books and in familial love. This book is tough and honest, but still full of the wonder of a child. Like The Catcher in the Rye, we might today consider this a “young adult” book, though certainly that descriptor did not exist when it was written in 1943.
What I find truly remarkable about this novel is how many people have seen themselves in its pages. People of different genders, backgrounds, and cultures have all seen something they can relate to in Francie and her life. And that’s not something just any novel can pull off.
I had the same experience as Noelle Santos when I read the book. Though my life is almost nothing like Francie’s, I recognized my younger self in her innocence and naivety. Like Franice I often felt that I didn’t fit in with my peers and instead found comfort in books. Like Francie I worked my butt off to get ahead in life, but often my efforts and competence weren’t appreciated. Like Francie I didn’t (and often still don’t) know how to tell when people are being real and when they just want something from me. Like Francie my relationship with my parents is a complicated web of emotions.
I think that’s why books become classics, after all. When we relate to them on such a deep, intimate level that it doesn’t matter what the character looks like or when they lived. We experience what they do. Books become classics when they are so well-written that you can literally see the world through that character’s eyes. I’ve never been to Brooklyn, but through the pages of this book (okay, and a few others) I feel that I know post-WWI Brooklyn.
I can’t recommend this book enough to fans of classics or young adult literature. I’m so thankful PBS sought out Noelle Santos and interviewed her for this special. What a fantastic recommendation she gave.