Seventy five years ago when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first published, the world was introduced to Francie Nolan, who visited Williamsburg’s Leonard Library and found that “from that time on, the world was hers for the reading.”
Now, Leonard Library will be designated a literary landmark on Wednesday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Betty Smith’s iconic novel.
Wednesday evening, Brooklyn Public Library officials will unveil the Betty Smith Literary Landmark Plaque at the library, located at 81 Devoe Street. Artist Amy Lyons, who created the HarperCollins 75th Anniversary cover of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, will be in attendance, as will the family of Betty Smith.
“It’s really special just for libraries broadly,” said Nick Higgins, BPL chief librarian, on the meaning of a literary landmark designation for Leonard Library, “because I think a lot of people have in their hearts a special memory of libraries in their childhoods, a place you go and discover reading and love reading. That was definitely reflected in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and certainly with Betty Smith, who had this library as her library.”
Smith, like her book’s character Francie, grew up on Grand Street in Brooklyn, but she began writing her debut novel when she lived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
“I was in college, and when I’d come home from lunch she’d be working on this novel, and I looked for the pages that she’d written and read the latest installment,” said Nancy Pfeiffer, Smith’s daughter, who just turned 96 this week. “I just couldn’t wait. And I read it right through from the beginning as it came hot off her typewriter.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn still resonates, 75 years later
Pfeiffer and her children will be at the Leonard Library event on Wednesday. Nancy Pfeiffer said she never imagined all these 75th anniversary celebrations on her mother’s work, but her family is incredibly proud.
“We’re all so thankful that this book is still being enjoyed by people today as much as it was 75 years ago,” said Pfeiffer’s daughter, Elizabeth Aivano. “It’s so heartwarming for us.”
Just as libraries are still a place of refuge today as they were for Francie, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn still resonates with readers 75 years after its 1943 publication.
Young women with ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ early to mid 1940s. Getty Images
“It seems to me just as fresh as it was the day she wrote it,” Pfeiffer said. “Every so often I pick up the book and read it or read some chapter and I discover a new way of looking at things.”
And it’s not just fresh to Pfeiffer herself. She spoke to a group of Brooklyn high school girls last spring, she said, and “the questions they asked told me that the book was real to them because it was so real and close to their own lives today.”
She’s spoken about her mother and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn often, and on Wednesday, at Leonard Library, she will again. It doesn’t get old, and neither does the novel.
“If the readers are treasuring the book, I’m happy,” she said. “For those who haven’t read it yet, I think there in for a wonderful, wonderful read.”
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn 75th Anniversary Party is at Leonard Library on Wednesday, Nov. 14 from 5 to 7:30 p.m.