The Lions of Little Rock

10 07 2012

Last week I drove down to Arkansas for our (sort of) annual trip to visit my wife’s family.  Hanging out in Arkansas is usually pretty relaxing, and I get plenty of time to lounge around and read, so before we left, I stopped by the public library and grabbed a few books to read.  The first one, I thought was pretty fitting – The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, which is set right there in Arkansas in 1958, during the Civil Rights movement.

The Lions of Little Rock has been getting a lot of buzz this summer.  I won’t be surprised to see it on the Newberry Honor book list soon, and it will likely be on the Rebecca Caudill list in the next few years.  Personally, I think it deserves every good review, bit of praise, and award nomination it gets.  I’ll go ahead and put it in my own top three young people historical fiction books about Civil Rights (a list that would also include Mary Ann Rodman’s Yankee Girl and Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963).

The plot is familiar.  Integration is coming to Little Rock, Arkansas schools.  Some people are for it, and some are against it.  The people that are for it believe that everyone, regardless of race, deserves a good education.  The people that are against it can be rude, threatening, and even violent.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine were a group of high school students that became the first African-American students to attend the white school.  In 1958, the governor of Arkansas passed a law so that all Arkansas high schools would become fully integrated.  The Little Rock school board did not agree with this decision and closed the schools.   Yup, you read that right – instead of having their kids go to school with black students, the adults in Little Rock thought it’d be better for the kids to just cancel the whole school year.

The story is told through the eyes of a 12 year old white girl named Marlee.  Marlee’s only in junior high, so her school is still in session, and not integrated.  She’s painfully shy and so quiet that she only talks in a few words at a time, and even then, she only talks to a select few people.  That is, until a new girl moves in to her class and helps Marlee understand what friendship is really about – understanding one another’s strengths, helping with each other’s weaknesses, and really being there.

The story is full of twists and turns as these two friends are caught up in Little Rock’s volatile political mess, so to say too much would give away some of the book’s surprises, so I’ll simply say this:  There are two major reasons why I think this book deserves all the kudos it’s getting –

1. It’s a fantastic history lesson.  I’ve read about the Civil Rights movement, and I knew about the Little Rock Nine, but I’d never heard about a town closing their schools for an entire year to protest integration.  It’s an mind boggling thing to think about now, when we have a mixed race president and don’t deal with the outward racism that was present in our country just 54 years ago, but they actually closed the schools, because no school was a better option to them than schools that mixed races.


2. Marlee is one of the best characters I’ve ever read.  The language in the book is beautiful, because it expresses Marlee’s real feelings, her fears, her confusion, and her desires.  A great author creates characters that you miss when the book ends.  I miss Marlee.

36 down, 54 to go.  I’ve been challenged to try and read 90 books in 90 days this summer.  The Lions of Little Rock, which is one of my favorites so far, was my 36th book.  

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