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December 15, 2021

Between Two Hardcovers, a Whole Life

Jacquelyn Mitchard is the New York Times bestselling author of 22 novels for adults and teenagers. Her upcoming novel, THE GOOD SON, releases on January 18th and is about a mother who must help her son after he is convicted of a devastating crime. In her holiday blog post, Jacquelyn recalls the most memorable gift she has ever received: a first edition of her favorite book, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, which her longtime literary agent gave her for Christmas. But it’s what she found stuck among its pages that made the book truly irreplaceable for her.


My literary agent of 30 years gave me the most memorable holiday gift --- in truth, the most memorable gift --- I’ve ever received. (This is obviously excepting the gifts my children made, the little plaster plaques with the molds of their hands and Christmas ornaments with their school pictures pasted onto construction paper.) When I opened Jane’s package, I started to cry so hard that one of my kids thought someone had sent me a dead fish. It was a first edition of my favorite novel, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN by Betty Smith. This has always been my favorite book, not only for its deceptively simple plot and prose used to tell a story about life and love and art and fear and family and everything else, but for its underlying messages about hope and hard work. In fact, I named my first-born daughter Francie Nolan after the character in that book.

The Francie in the novel struggled up like the urban tree that grows wherever its seed falls, that “survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth (and) would be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” In the books from the library, Francie first finds her the hope of her eventual freedom --- and though I didn’t endure quite the same extremes of poverty that the character experienced as a child, the details were similar enough that they echoed through my whole life.

Mainly, it was about the triumph of hope over circumstance.

Francie said, “Dear God, let me be something every minute of every hour of my life…. And when I sleep, let me dream all the time so that not one little piece of living is ever lost.” When it debuted in 1943, many years before I was even a concept, among the stories about the book was that it was published in an Armed Services edition, a small paperback designed to fit in a uniform pocket. One Marine wrote to Smith, "I can't explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine.... A surge of confidence has swept through me, and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.”

I opened the copy that Jane gave me, and I saw that it was signed by Betty Smith to her own agent…and then I saw the marvel. Stuck among the book’s pages were letters from Smith to her agent, confiding details of her ordinary life as well as her hopes and fears about suddenly becoming a bestselling author, a fate she never expected. Of course, something similar had happened to me (and to Jane) with the publication of my first novel, THE DEEP END OF THE OCEAN. When I wrote that book, I was a 40-year-old widowed mom of three boys and a reporter. The only fiction I’d ever written had been for the freshman elective at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. What happened to that book, that it became a bestseller and then the inaugural selection of the Oprah Winfrey Book Club and then a film and that it was published in 34 languages all around the world, was a triumph of hope over circumstances. It changed my whole life and gave me the privilege of telling stories for a living.

We moved some years ago, and, for a while, it seemed that book was lost. I can still taste the panic I felt, unable to sleep, rummaging through every box until I found it. Sometimes I still go downstairs and open the glass-fronted bookcase where it lives, just to make sure it’s still with me. Few things in this world are irreplaceable, and most of those are not made from paper. But this one is.