The Lions of Little Rock
By Kristin Levine
Published 2012 by Putnam Juvenile
Marlee is shy - she doesn't like speaking to people she doesn't know. As a result, she doesn't have many friends. When a new girl, Liz, comes along, she's brave and not afraid to say what she thinks. Marlee likes her almost instantly. But, almost before she knows it, Liz is gone, replaced by rumors that she is a Negro girl, passing as white. Marlee doesn't want to lose her best friend so soon after finding her - she'll face down integration and danger if that's what it takes to keep Liz in her life.
This book was getting quite a bit of buzz when I picked up a copy at ALA Midwinter, though I didn't get around to reading it until the fall. However, once I read it, I found the buzz well-deserved. This is an evocative, honest, and, at times, brutal depiction of an oft-neglected historical period: the time after the Little Rock Nine integrated. I love that Levine felt that this was the story to tell. Many historical fiction books dealing with Civil Rights seem to focus on the time period up to integration or a number of years after. Levine sets her story in Arkansas one year after integration has occurred - segregationists are scrambling to find a way to stop integration from happening and emotions are running at an all-time high. I like that Levine gives us different ways to see what's happening - Marlee's friendship with Liz is the main narrative focus, but we also hear about Marlee's sister and a number of other high schoolers being sent away to attend school elsewhere. Marlee's parents (who are teachers) find their every move scrutinized and their careers in jeopardy with increasing frequency. And, while this is a story about the big issue of integration and treating your fellow humans with compassion and understanding, this is also a story about Marlee growing up and finding her own voice. I thought Levine did a wonderful job of balancing the global (the issue of integration) with the local (Marlee's coming of age). It all flows together nicely and I didn't feel like one story took away from the other. I love that there are times when Marlee makes decisions that negatively impact Liz and her family. Marlee simply wants to be a good friend but, as a white child, she does not see things from the same perspective as Liz and her family. The books feels impeccably researched - there is a tremendous sense of place and time in the novel, making me want to learn more about our nation's ongoing struggle with civil rights. I love that, even outside the big message of the story, there is a significant message about the importance of speaking up and being heard. I think this is a truly wonderful book and will definitely be recommending it highly.
Thanks to the publisher for an advance reader's copy.