Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. Grades 5-8. Putnam Juvenile, January 2012. 297 pages. Reviewed from ARC provided by publisher.

Twelve year old Marlee doesn't really speak. Oh, she's fine talking to her family, especially her older sister who has always looked out for her, but when it comes to people outside the family... Marlee tends to freeze up, certain she's going to say something stupid. Maybe that's why she's been stuck with such a snotty best friend for all these years. But all that changes when Marlee meets a new girl in her class. Liz is unlike any girl Marlee's met and she even helps Marlee find the courage to talk in front of the whole class. But when Liz suddenly disappears from school and rumors circulate that Liz is colored and was passing for white in order to go to a better school, Marlee must figure out where she stands.

And in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958 (the year the high schools were closed because of the controversy over integration), there doesn't seem to be much solid ground.

Many people probably know about the Little Rock Nine - nine African American students who were the first to integrate white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. You can even read firsthand accounts of that tumultuous year in books like Warriors Don't Cry by Melba Patillo Beals and A Mighty Long Way by Carlotta Walls LaNier. But what happened after that? Little Rock was a town divided. Schools were shut down. The state government disagreed with the federal government. How did it feel to live in such an uncertain place at such an uncertain time?

Kristin Levine dives in and shows us that world through Marlee's eyes. I'm always one for a historical book that shows me times and events with which I was previously unfamiliar. In the case of The Lions of Little Rock, it was the character of Marlee who drew me in first. She's painfully shy, and although she has a lot of thoughts, she has trouble expressing them. She loves math and dreams of being a rocket scientist someday, an aspiration that's not exactly typical for girls of her age at the time. And she loves her family, which can make things all the more confusing since her father is in favor of integration and her mother is against it.

For Marlee, Liz is a saving grace. She's a good and loyal friend. She doesn't mind that Marlee finds it hard to speak at first, and Liz helps her to find her voice. Marlee can't bear the thought of losing her friend after Liz stops coming to school, but she must also realize that to continue to see Liz is to put Liz's life in danger.

The Lions of Little Rock is about Marlee finding her voice, but it's just as much about an entire town, an entire people finding their voices and speaking up for what is right.

Kristin Levine includes an author's note telling how she came to write about this "lost year" and suggesting resources for further reading. This book definitely has classroom applications and would make a great readaloud when discussing civil rights or black history. Readalikes include Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman and A Friendship for Today by Patricia McKissack.

Read more reviews at Book Nut, Everyday Reading, and The Fourth Musketeer. Also check out Margo's interview with Kristin Levine at The Fourth Musketeer.

The Lions of Little Rock is on shelves now!