I hope everyone is having a fantastic Friday so far!
Have I told you that I majored in history in college? My focus was the Southern Civil Rights Movement, which is why The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine stood out to me the moment I saw it.
Two girls separated by race form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958. Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn’t have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear – speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.
But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn’t matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.
I love learning about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the South. I’ve always been incredibly interested in public school integration attempts and have been really intrigued by stories of light-skinned African-Americans passing as white in the segregated states. The 1950s and 1960s seem like time periods marked by fear and uncertainty, but also excitement as things were beginning to change. These mixed up feelings of fright and excitement are captured so well by Levine in this book.
The Lions of Little Rock is definitely a coming of age story told within the context of the year of school closures in Little Rock. Somehow in my studies I missed that the state government closed the Little Rock schools so they wouldn’t have to integrate the year following the Little Rock Nine. What?! Levine uses this somewhat overlooked section of history to act as the backdrop for Marlee and Liz’s friendship. In the book, these school closures are Marlee’s wake-up call that life isn’t as “black and white” as she once thought it was. The events going on in her city force her to grow up a bit to see the reality around her.
However, this is also a story about finding your voice both personally and publicly. At the book’s start, Marlee is a painfully shy and quiet preteen who is somewhat smothered by her longtime friend Sally. As the story continues and Marlee befriends the new girl in school, Liz, she starts to step out of her comfort zone more and more. And Liz?! Liz is such a bright and vivid character! She has spunk and vivacity and is caring. Even more than Marlee, I really connected to Liz’s character because she is the one who needed Marlee to help her NOT speak (Marlee learned how to speak her thoughts from Liz), which is totally me. Sometimes I need to learn when its wisest to not open my mouth, just as Liz does. ;p
In the end, The Lions of Little Rock is a story of friendship. These two girls weren’t allowed to see each other not only because of their skin colors, but because of the danger their relationship put them in. However, they managed to strike a close bond despite the prevailing cultural norms and the threats.
Overall, The Lions of Little Rock was a wonderful middle grades novel to introduce your 6-8 grader to the history of the Southern Civil Rights Movement. Levine gets all of her points across without focusing on how dangerous it really was during this time- totally age appropriate. I also highly recommend this one for use in a classroom as it’s a pretty quick read.
Author: Kristin Levine
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile (January 5, 2012)
Length: 298 pages
Buy the Book: The Lions of Little Rock