Behind The Stories

"A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" Inspired NPR's Kee Malesky To Reach For The Sky

NPR Librarian Kee Malesky i i

NPR Librarian Kee Malesky 2010 Doby Photography/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption 2010 Doby Photography/NPR
NPR Librarian Kee Malesky

NPR Librarian Kee Malesky

2010 Doby Photography/NPR

Last week, we broke the news of our Washington Desk Editor's stealthy side: NPR's Ron Elving kept his PG-13 reading indulgence purposefully hidden from his father (it's just more fun that way!).

Today, NPR Librarian Kee Malesky looks back on the YA novel – and its strong, female protagonist and fellow Brooklynite – which inspired her to grow self-reliant and to pursue her passions:

"I remember the first time I was excited about my ability to read. I was only eight, reading The Curlytops at Silver Lake one morning, when I came across a word I didn't recognize – exaggerate. I carefully sounded it out as I had been taught to do. It was a thrilling moment, and I've never forgotten it; it was the beginning of my life as a reader.

"My first truly favorite and life-changing book came along a few years later. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was probably on my eighth grade summer reading list, or maybe I just stumbled on it at the public library. But I immediately knew that this was a book I would love forever, and not just because I, too, grew in Brooklyn.

"I read the first line – "Serene was a word you could put to Brooklyn, New York" - and stopped, reread it, and went to the dictionary. Did serene have a meaning I wasn't aware of? How could you call Brooklyn "serene"? It was a wonderful place to grow up – the center of the Universe, where everything happened and everything was available to you – but I didn't think it was serene. But I kept reading, and thought about that sentence, and realized that sometimes – a weekend afternoon in the summer, for example – Brooklyn could be quiet and peaceful, with the soft salty breeze rising from the harbor. The novel is set in the first two decades of the 20th century, and I imagined that Brooklyn could indeed have been a place of at least occasional serenity and calm.

"The main character, Francie Nolan, was a girl who loved to read – a book a day was her goal, as she went through the library shelves systematically from A to Z. My parents and teachers had always encouraged me to read, so Francie reminded me of myself. I must admit that the librarian depicted in the book wasn't really a sympathetic character, so I don't think she influenced me to join the profession. But Francie and her struggles – some very unpleasant things happen to her – did make me think that I could be strong and self-reliant, and do whatever I wanted with my life. The tree of the title – "Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement" – stood for those qualities and inspired me to value books and the history of the city I love."

Kee isn't the only one who holds this YA book dear either. The Library of Congress is currently featuring A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as one of the eighty-eight "Books That Shaped America" in an exhibition running at the Library until September.

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