I just finished reading and listening to the new Harper Perenial edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Id' like to discuss how relavant this book is to today's 8th grader's. How much has America changed in 100 years? What challenges face 8th grader's today? Has poverty really changed? Are children safer today?

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A great deal has changed in the last one hundred years. The nuclear family has disintegrated with the advent of two working parents and/or divorce. Young people spend a great deal more time together with friends and peers, but seem to have less time with parents to help them navigate the troubled waters of middle school. Technology while an amazing tool, allows kids to remain connected almost twenty-four hours a day. This gives them little rest from a world of gossip, complaining, bullying, and criticism (given or received). America has seen several wars since that time, and most frightening, learned of American vulnerability in the face of 9-11.

It seems that insecurity becomes a more horrific problem for young people to face as parents are not present or caring enough to educate them to be concerned for the feelings of others, kinder to each other and strong in their own sense of self—insecurity is more prevalent than ever. As the brunt of criticism and outright hostility, young people learn to become more aggressive in order to fit and and defend themselves.

Poverty exists and always will, it would seem. In this economy, people who never believed they would lose jobs and not be able to support themselves or their family members are finding the need to adjust to living on less, with less. This is especially hard on children.

It's hard to know if children are safer. Things took place many years ago that children never spoke about. Today, they speak out, but the destruction at the hands of adults is just as hard to reverse. Life seems to be less precious to people who harm children, women and the elderly. Crimes often do not seem to be punished commensurate with the wrong-doing committed. And with technology, young people are more easily targeted. Husbands murder wives, children murder parents: in this kind of environment, it is impossible to say with certainty that children are safer. However, looking at the world from a wider perspective would indicate that a lack of concern for the value of life means that our children (in fact perhaps everyone) are not safe.

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Three things in the novel are strikingly different from American life today. The first is that young people who have finished only 8th grade aren't in any position to work enough at significant enough jobs to keep an entire family housed and fed as was the case with Neeley and Francie. The second is that Fancie would never be able to "fib" her way into college now--checks and double-checks and criteria and security checks would have made it impossible.

The third is the difference between how Francie resolved her romance problems and how such are thought of today. I can't imagine any young college or high school aged woman agreeing to marry because the man was a good man. This is sometimes the only right way to make a marital choice (along rejecting a man when he is not a good man), but with the emphasis as it is on "Yes, but do you love him?" (or conversely, "Yes, but you love him even if he is not a good man") the likelihood of a Francie of today accepting a Ben of today is very very small--very small indeed, even more so if the Francie is in love with someone else.

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Our children seem to be reaching maturity more quickly today than in the past.  Scientific research points to the use of steroids in animal production for food (beef, pork, poultry) which also effects the human consumer.  Therefore we have young girls becoming a "woman" at age eight or nine much less in middle school.  Hormones are a huge issue in 8th grade which definitely effects their lives and the lives of those around them. I'm not sure poverty has changed much.  There are still many people who are in dire need of help in order to live and pay their bills.  With the rising fuel costs and the housing market in the state it is, more people may end up in the category of "impoverished".  I am of the belief that our government is not responsible for supporting whole groups of people.  Welfare, etc. should be a temporary pick-me-up--not a way of life.  People who take advantage of the system cause so much damage to our plan to help those who really need the assistance.  The majority of people who are suffering from poverty are children. As far as safety goes, I agree with Linda.  I worked at the middle school where Jessica Lunsford would have attended and her abductor had been on our campus daily as part of a construction crew remodeling our science building.  While as a parent I don't want my kids to grow up afraid of their shadows, all you kids do need to be aware of your surroundings and listen closely to your instinctive voices.

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You've asked a lot of questions! I taught 8th graders for four years, and I can tell that things have changed for them just in the 30+ years since I was an 8th grader. Sex and drugs (including tobacco and alcohol) have always been and will always be issues for all teenagers. But my generation didn't have to worry about catching a virus that could kill you. We didn't have images of sex and violence digitally pumped into our homes every day. There probably were gangs, but they would have been limited to certain areas of town.

I don't think children have ever really been safe since the first child was born. There have always been evil people who do evil things. But children aren't forced into factory work as they would have been 100 years ago. 

I'll be interested to see what other responses you get!

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