The World Was Hers for the Reading

"There's a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven."

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven.”


I have read for long stretches of time over the past few days. Do you ever do that? Let all of your responsibilities slide and head out to another world for half a day? I hope you do.

My book world has been Brooklyn in the early 1900s. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith, 1943) is a coming-of-age novel that I rediscovered while I was creating my Christmas book tree.

It’s my second time reading the novel (my first was decades ago), and since it has been so long, I have forgotten most of the story. Ms. Smith wrote a novel that was both successful (300,000 copies sold in the first six weeks) and banned (she included the unsavory parts of Brooklyn life). I’m halfway through the novel, and I’m not surprised at all that many people loved it and many people wanted it off the shelves.

Like any good coming-of-age story, this one has several scenes of childish joy. Today I read a passage that touched the childhood section of my heart, and I thought that you would enjoy it, too.

Francie Nolan is the main character of the novel, and her early school years were tough due to her family’s poverty and the ugliness that came with an overcrowded public school. Yet, the narrator says, “always there was the magic of learning things.”And so it was that way when Francie first learned to read:

For quite a while, Francie had been spelling out letters, sounding them and then putting the sounds together to mean a word. But one day, she looked at a page and the word “mouse” had instantaneous meaning. She looked at the word and the picture of a gray mouse scampered through her mind. She looked further and when she saw “horse,” she heard him pawing the ground and saw the sun glint on his glossy coat. The word “running” hit her suddenly and she breathed hard as though running herself. The barrier between the individual sound of each letter and the whole meaning of the word was removed and the printed word meant a thing at one quick glance. She read a few pages rapidly and almost became ill with excitement. She wanted to shout it out. She could read! She could read!


From that time on, the world was hers for the reading.

“Oh, magic hour when a child first knows it can read printed words!” is how the chapter that holds this precious passage begins.

I wish I could remember the exact time of my “magic hour.” I wonder if I was reading alone or with my mother, a sibling, a friend, or one of our cats.

No matter. It happened and, just like Francie, the world became mine.

What special memories do you have of learning to read?



Darla McDavid

I'm Darla, a writer of stories about family, friends, goodness, and God. I love cats, coffee, gardening, and tall stacks of books. Click here to subscribe to my blog. You can also find me on Facebook and Instagram. In my other life, I'm an administrative professional and a Sunday School teacher for preschoolers.

12 Comments Write a comment

  1. I don’t see a like button, but I like this, and though I loved the movie, it missed such treasures as this one. Thank you.


    • Hi, Kristen — Thanks for wanting to like this post! The WordPress “like” button isn’t cooperating with my site, so please use the “Share” buttons instead. I never saw the movie, and since you loved it, I may watch it after I finish the book.


      • It is a very old black and white movie, and you will appreciate the sensibilities of those days. The relationship between the girl and her no account father is especially touching. She sees the good in him, but still rallies around her mother and does what she needs to do. I love the story and will certainly plan to read it.


        • Yes, I do love the father-daughter relationship; it’s a familiar one. If you read it, let me know what you think. I would like to see how the movie presents the controversial dialogue and scenes. Then again, I don’t want actors to take the place of the characters that I have in my head!


          • The girl is played so beautifully. They did not make a hash of it, which is so often done. I have not seen the movie for several years, but it was done in the days of leaving a lot to the imagination. So it might seem rather tame to you.

            I remember clearly how the father related with the daughter, and how she imagined him as a hero in her hopes and dreams. Then he died. The ability to survive depended utterly on the work the father was unwilling to do, and the mother had to make up for his failures. In that way, it was an anthem to the historical American dream.

            It took the daughter to carry out the father’s hopes. Without the father being the dreamer, the daughter never would have believed in herself, and would have been stuck with the drudgery and low expectations of the mother. What a story.


            • The only bad thing about all of this is that I’m coming to the end of the book. It is quite a story. And, believe me, “tame” is fine with me when it comes to movies and imagination, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. I love your beautiful summary of this novel, Kristen.


  2. Throughout my childhood, my Dad was in the radio business. Since TV was my Dad’s “competition” I grew up without a television. My Mom taught me to read by the time I entered kindergarten (with the help of a good old fashioned McGuffey Reader). By the time I was in my early teens, I had become an avid reader. To this day, I love “curling up” with a good book (especially the “Good Book” itself). I am happy to say both of my daughters love to read (which my wife and I helped to instill in them by turning off the television and “reading them to sleep” every night).


    • Did your father let you watch TV with your friends or was it forbidden? That’s interesting to think of a time when TV was such a threat to radio. Now TV is on its way out.

      And look there at your avatar — Grandpa sharing his love for reading with his sweet granddaughters!


      • TV was strictly forbidden by my parents, throughout the first decade of my life. When I was in kindergarten, I was ridiculed by my classmates when someone asked me if I had watched the latest Bugs Bunny “cartoon” (because I had responded by saying: “What is that, some new kind of CAR?”). We moved from San Francisco to the Burbank area when I was 10 years old. My Dad finally “relented” and brought home a small black & white TV set (shortly after watching an episode of Bonanza during a social event at a friend’s house…because my Dad loved the show so much!).


  3. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN was the first book I read aloud, page by page. A neighbor was bed-bound for the last 3 months of a trouble pregnancy, and friends carried in meals, helped take care of her house and her pets. My contribution was to read aloud to her every day. I was eleven, and the book she wanted was A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. I began carefully, hesitantly. By the last chapter I was changing my voice to sound like different characters, and even “acting out” some of the parts.
    I became a proud read-aloud novel reader, and she became the happy, grateful mom of a beautiful baby boy!


    • You read it at 11? The novel has such mature themes, I wonder if most of it went over your head while you were reading. I just read the section that leads to the mother shooting the pervert, as he’s called. It’s intense. Do you recall how you felt about the story at that young age?


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