When it was published in 1943, Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel was an immediate best seller. And in the nearly 80 years since it came out, the book has grown to become a seminal American classic. The story, set in turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn, opens with 11-year-old Francie Nolan, the daughter of first-generation Americans, daydreaming about living in the so-called Tree of Heaven that shades the fire escape of her family’s tenement apartment—the type of tree that, “no matter where its seed fell,” as Smith puts it, reached toward the sky. From there, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie as she matures from an idealistic young girl into an ambitious yet practical 17-year-old. Like the resilient Tree of Heaven, Francie overcomes great adversity to make a life for herself, navigating her beloved father’s debilitating alcoholism, her overworked mother’s thinly veiled favoritism of her younger brother, and the seemingly inescapable cycle of poverty that plagues her community. —Megan McCluskey

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