TEEN LIBRARIAN’S REVIEW:
I hope that even my younger blog readers have learned about Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education. Maybe you’ve even heard about the “Little Rock Nine,” brave students who began attending all-white Little Rock High School in Arkansas during the fall of 1957. The Little Rock Nine, despite the Supreme Court decision several years earlier, required the assistance of armed National Guard troops to protect them from violence while going to school.
But did you know what happened the next year in Little Rock, in the fall of 1958? Did you know that the Little Rock Board of Education voted to close ALL the high schools in the district to prevent further integration of black and white students? I didn’t either, not until I read Kristin Levine’s poignant new novel “The Lions of Little Rock.”
“Lions” is narrated by twelve year-old Marlee, a painfully shy, largely silent girl who excels at math but is rendered mute with fear when called upon in class. Marlee has a few friends, bossy Sally and her follower Nora, but barely speaks to either of them. Thankfully, Marlee is much more comfortable at home talking to her school teacher parents and older sister Judy. When her folks decide to send Judy away so she can start attending high school again, Marlee is left more alone than ever.
Enter new classmate Liz, a brash, outspoken girl who immediately befriends Marlee. Liz is a smart girl herself, and she recognizes a kindred spirit in Marlee. The two join up for an oral presentation on Native American history, with Liz offering Marlee a magic square math book — the holy grail! — if Marlee promises to speak during the presentation. Liz patiently works with Marlee to overcome her fear of speaking in a pretty ingenious manner, bringing her to the Little Rock Zoo to talk to all the animals.
Marlee blossoms in believable ways through Liz’s friendship and encouragement, and it’s just lovely to see this self-doubting girl begin to recognize her own courage. Except, on the day of the big class presentation, Marlee arrives at school to find Liz gone. [Awesome note: Marlee does the entire presentation herself anyway.] The real shocker? Liz isn’t coming back. Ever. Turns out Liz is a black girl whose light skin allowed her to “pass” as a white student and attend Marlee’s still all-white middle school. Classmates and parents are outraged at Liz’s “deception,” which adds another undercurrent of danger and unrest to an already volatile situation in Little Rock.
Marlee and Liz try to maintain a clandestine friendship, despite the pervasive threat of violence and against the expressed wishes of their respective families. But there is real danger lurking in Little Rock, especially now that Red, a total loose cannon and older brother of Marlee’s classmate JT, has made it his goal to punish Liz. Red has already threatened and terrified Marlee. Now he’s stolen some dynamite, hidden it in his trunk, and seems to be waiting for the right moment to strike.
Instead of accepting racial segregation and fear, Marlee instead uses her newly discovered voice to join a women’s education committee (!), speak out to her classmates, canvass her neighborhood, and help prepare for a crucial Board of Education vote. I won’t reveal any further details, but, trust me, “Lions” is a beautiful, touching exploration of Marlee’s growing bravery, which unfolds in a gradual, authentic manner. It’s also completely age appropriate for a middle school audience, as even scary or complex events are presented with a gentle hand.
As much as I loved Marlee, the other characters are wonderfully developed as well. Marlee’s seemingly stoic, cold mother is painstakingly revealed to be a far more warm and layered woman nursing her own doubts. Popular JT, who bullies Marlee into doing his math homework, is later shown to have his own fears about Red’s potential for violence. Even some members of an anti-integration group are not depicted as cardboard villains, but rather as basically decent people who are too afraid or ill-informed to do what is right.
“The Lions of Little Rock” is a masterful piece of historical fiction that melds drama, actual events from the civil rights movement, friendship, and family. It is an absolute gem of a novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. So, yeah, I loved it. Please go out and read it now. 🙂