While the majority of critics of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn indulgently praised Betty Smith's first novel, others expressed only reluctant approval or no approval at all. What little conflict existed among 1943 reviews primarily dealt with doubts about the book's literary value. Skepticism was partially founded on the fact that Smith, a novice novelist, had yet to be established as a writer or literary fiction. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn suffered from accusations of following a predictable pattern of events that were woven together in an overly sentimental fashion. The vague sexual incidents in the novel also stirred up mild controversy among the more conservative critical minds of mid-20th-century America.
Margaret Winning in Commonwealth summed up popular opinion of the book by describing it as "Beauty, wholesome philosophy, and honesty intermingled with stark realism, poverty, and continued struggle." Favorable, almost doting descriptions such as these were nearly ubiquitous. Meyer Berger in New Republic called the book "a faithful picture of a part of Brooklyn that was mostly slums and misery. The picture is softened by almost poetic handling." The manner in which Smith gently yet truthfully exposed the poverty of her characters won her acclaim from the political arena as well. An anonymously authored excerpt from The New York Times called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn "a remarkably good first novel," and inferred that it was a revolutionary advance in the literary world. "The author sees the misery, squalor, and cruelty of slum life but sees them with understanding, pity, and sometimes with hilarious humor. A welcome relief from the latter-day fashion of writing about slum folk as if they were all brutalized morons."
Interspersed with this positive feedback were statements of doubt concerning the morality and literary merit of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Some reviewers such as Margaret Winning in Commonwealth worried that the novel's "stark realism" was perhaps too stark, meaning that Smith's "wholesome philosophy" was accompanied by rather unwholesome sexual "incidents" that "may be too realistic for some readers." In critique of the novel's literary qualities, an anonymous article in Booklist reluctantly conceded that "as literary genre the book is interesting" but went on to say "the progress of the family from rags to riches could stand considerable blue pencilling." Rosemary Dawson in The New Yorker offered considerable praise of the beginning part of the novel, going so far as to call it "a beautiful and moving piece of work." Her disappointment with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as a work of literature was found in the end of the novel, where she accused it of taking on "more the mechanics of the usual popular piece of fiction." The most scathing criticism by far came from Diana Trilling in Library Journal:
"I am a little bewildered by so much response to so conventional a little book? I have seen 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' compared to the novels of James Farrell, and all to the credit of Miss Smith's novel. This makes me very sad both for the condition of fiction reviewing and for Mr. Farrell, whatever his faults as a novelist of stature. Of course Francie Nolan's story is more cheerful than Danny O'Neill's and a more popular commodity, but surely popular taste should be allowed to find its emotional level without being encouraged to believe that a 'heart-warming' experience is a serious literary experience."
Diana Trilling, Library Journal, May 1, 1943
New York Times, August 22, 1943
Book Week, August 22, 1943
Weekly Book Review, August 22, 1943
Rosemary Dawson, New Yorker, August 24, 1943
Springfield Republican, August 29, 1943
F.H. Bullock, Time, September 6, 1943
Meyer Berger, New Republic, September 6, 1943
Katharine Jocher, Saturday Review of Literature, September 11, 1943
Booklist, September 1943
Margaret Winning, Commonwealth, September 17, 1943
America Chapel, Atlantic, October 1943
New Yorker, October 9, 1943
Saturday Review of Literature, October 16, 1943
E.M.B., Social Forces, December 1943
Orville Prescott, Wisconsin Library Bulletin, October 1943
Yale Review, Autumn 1943
New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1943
New York Times Magazine, October 1, 1944
New York Times Magazine, May 28, 1944
New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1944
Publishers Weekly, May 27, 1944
Collier's, March 10, 1945
Book Review Digest. 39th Annual Cumulation. The H.W. Wilson Company: New York, 1944.
Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. Vol. 14. The H.W. Wilson Company: New York, 1945.
Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature. Vol. 15. The H.W. Wilson Company: New York, 1947.