My younger sister is a great thinker and a real activist. She sent me an article she wrote for The Horn Book in which she argued very effectively that we ought to stop dividing children’s books into books for boys and books for girls.
Thinking back to my own childhood, when I read several hundred books a year, I remember that boys were pushed toward Tom Swift and the Hardy Boys while girls were given Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. That’s probably oversimplifying it — I never read much of any of those series — but I read a ton of baseball books and most of the science fiction written by Robert Heinlein.
A lot of those books came from the Carnegie Library in my mother’s home town. I usually spent several weeks visiting my grandparents every summer, and I would check out five or six books every other day. But there were a few books — rare ones — that I would read over and over again as the years went by.
They weren’t the so-called iconic books of my generation. I never read any Tolkien, and books like “On the Road” left me cold. I did read “The Catcher in the Rye” a couple of times, but I never thought it really spoke to me. Holden Caulfield was half a generation ahead of me.
There was one book, though, that sort of came out of nowhere for me. My dad was born in New York City and grew up in Brooklyn. Starting when I was 7 or 8 years old, we spent time with our grandparents in Brooklyn nearly every summer. I never made it to Ebbets Field, but I saw so many other fascinating things about America’s favorite city-within-a-city.
I don’t know how old I was the first time I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” The book had been published in 1943, and the story it told occurred more than a generation before that. I don’t think it was the first book I ever read with a female protagonist, but it was certainly one of the first ones that really resonated with me.
It was such a beautiful story, so completely American. Francie Nolan lived in grinding poverty in the years just before World War I, but loved her life and believed that it would get better.
She was the granddaughter of immigrants from Austria and Ireland, with a hard-working mother and a charming, alcoholic father who worked — when he worked at all — as a singing waiter. She essentially had nothing, but she loved so many things about her life and didn’t feel like anyone owed her anything.
The amazing thing about the story — and I downloaded it onto my Nook to see if it was as I remembered — is that while yes, Francie is a girl, there isn’t anything “girly” about the story at all. She is first and foremost a person, an individual about whom we care deeply.
Second, she is completely and totally an American of the period in which she lived. She isn’t some phony Horatio Alger story. She doesn’t go from rags to riches; she survives her childhood and is headed off to college. It’s pretty apparent she has a chance at a good life.
What more can anyone ask of a real story?