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Students honor 75th anniversary of ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’

Brooklyn students and library officials celebrated the 75th anniversary of one of the most popular American novels of all time, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

Dozens of 10th-graders from the Young Women’s Leadership School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn gathered Wednesday at the Leonard Branch Public Library to discuss the 1943 book by Betty Smith.

The story’s narrator, young Francie Nolan, describes the streets in Williamsburg, and in an early passage, details her visit to the Leonard Library.

On Wednesday, portions of Smith’s best-seller were read aloud by her 94-year-old daughter, Nancy Smith Pfeiffer.

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Nancy Smith Pfeiffer, 94, daughter of author Betty Smith, with students from Young Women’s Leadership School of Brooklyn at Leonard Public Library on Wednesday.

(Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News)

She talked about seeing her mother working on the novel.

“I watched that book getting written…in the morning she’d be sitting at the typewriter working, and when I came home she’d be sitting there still,” she recalled. “And I’d look in her inbox and see that she’d written nine or ten pages.”

Smith was a single mother of two struggling to pay her rent when the book was published. The story of the Nolan family was an instant success, selling 300,000 copies in six weeks.

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Artist Amy Lyons’s painting depicting a scene from Betty Smith’s iconic book “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is unveiled at Leonard Public Library on Wednesday in Brooklyn.

(Amy Lyons)

“Talk about feminist — a single woman trying to raise two children, and trying to do it by her writing, you don’t know how hard it is to sell a piece of writing,” her daughter said. “So I always handed it to her. She didn’t just talk about it, she did it.”

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At the library, the students noted how some things from Francie Nolan’s 1912 Williamsburg, and her habit of seeking solitude on her fire escape, still resonate.

“I remember when I was younger I would go up on the rooftop and just sit there on the fire escape and watch everyone,” said Yessenia Capellan, 15.

Betty Smith lived in this apartment at 702 Grand St. in Williamsburg when she wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn".

Betty Smith lived in this apartment at 702 Grand St. in Williamsburg when she wrote “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”.

(Debbie Egan-Chin/New York Daily News)

For some, the hardscrabble lifestyle rang true.

“I like the part in the first chapter when she was talking about fighting over the bread,” said Alaisiah Benjamin, 15. “You see the struggles, how people are living in the book. That still happens now.”

As part of the anniversary celebration, the Brooklyn Public Library also unveiled two new paintings depicting scenes from the iconic novel by Williamsburg artist Amy Lyons. 

a tree grows in brooklyn
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