The Lions of Little Rock

by Kristin Levine
ages: 11+
First sentence: “I talk a lot.”
Release date: January 5, 2012
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.

It’s 1958 in Little Rock, Arkansas. History has told us that the year before that the school district in Little Rock were forced to allow 9 black students — who came to be known as the Little Rock 9 — into the schools. But what happened after that?

Levine tells the story of the school year the year after the Little Rock 9, a story of segregation and fighting, of learning and growth. The main character is a white girl, twelve-yaer-old Marlee Nesbitt, who is incredibly shy. Painfully shy. Never talks shy. And then she meets Liz, who is the opposite of Marlee in every way.  They form a friendship, and Liz helps Marlee come out of her shell a little bit. And then it turns out that Liz is actually black, and she’s kicked out of school. There begins Marlee’s quest: to keep her friend, to bring her older sister back home (she’s been sent to live with their grandmother since the high schools are closed), to finally get the courage to speak out against segregation.

It’s a lot to pack into a middle grade novel, but Levine’s real talent is making the huge seem intimate. This book could have easily gone into either full-on-lecture or Southerners-are-stupid mode, making it trite and one-dimensional. By focusing on the relationship between Marlee and Liz, Levine has made history and race issues personal: you root for these two friends, you want them to be able to be friends. And you sympathize with nearly everyone in the book (even the negative characters have some redeeming qualities; no one is merely a stereotype). It’s full of history as well; from the early days of the integration movement, to the basic atmosphere of the late fifties. One of my favorite parts was Marlee’s first experience riding in a commercial airliner. It was quite priceless.

It’s not a perfect book; it starts slow and took me a while to get into. But, once I did, I was richly rewarded with a complex and engaging story.

3 thoughts on “The Lions of Little Rock

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