The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Little Rock in 1958 was a divided city at the forefront of the integration battles. Marlee finds herself at the crossroads of that battle when the high schools in Little Rock are closed and her sister is sent away to go to school in another town. Marlee is a quiet person, often unable to speak up even when she would most like to. When she meets Liz, a new girl in her class, the two girls become fast friends with Liz helping Marlee find her voice. The two girls work together on an oral project but before they can present it, Liz is discovered to be passing as a white girl to go to school there. Marlee has to find a way to continue being friends with the best friend she has ever had, despite the dangers. Otherwise she’s lost another person that she can actually talk to. She has to find her voice and learn how to use it to make a difference.
Levine’s setting is one later than most books about Little Rock. This book takes place a year after the Little Rock Nine enrolled at Little Rock Central High School. It explores the effect of their courage on the community and also the way that the problems were not solved in that year alone. The passions on both sides of of the segregation debate are shown clearly, as is the toll that it took on the Little Rock community. The most important piece of the book is the courage of the ordinary citizen in taking on larger forces and winning for the good of everyone. These are lessons that are vital for our children to learn.
The title of the book refers to the lions in the Little Rock Zoo. Marlee lives close enough to the zoo to hear the lions roaring at night before she goes to bed. The zoo is also the place that she sometimes meets with Liz. This gives the book a strong level of symbolism that will give young readers something to relate to and discuss as the book progresses.
The character of Marlee is especially well drawn. She is shy, nearly silent, and underneath that is brave, a good friend, and passionate. She has trouble communicating with her own mother, rarely speaking, and yet she is inspiring and has a large impact on her mother and others. There is a strength to her character that is more subtle than most, but also more steely. She’s an incredible heroine and one that will inspire young readers. The other characters are equally well done. Liz, the best friend, is complex and interesting, battling her own problems with being too out-spoken. Marlee’s parents are both teachers, watching their livelihood and professions being slowly destroyed in Little Rock.
This powerful book is ideal for using in classrooms talking about civil rights and segregation. It’s a book that will read aloud well and has plenty of action to keep listeners riveted. An impressive and memorable book that should be in every public and school library. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
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