2012 has been an amazing year so far for children’s literature! Some of my favorites are The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, Wonder by R.J. Palacio (which we’re currently reading as a whole family read-aloud), and Crow by Barbara Wright. All are terrific, terrific stories, and I’m so glad we can pass so many great titles on to our kids and students, but the one book I’d like to shout about from the roof tops is The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.
By Kristin Levine
G.P. Putnam and Sons/2012
Synopsis from Goodreads:
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.
My recommendation is for readers in 5th grade and up.
My thoughts on the book . . .
There are some books that just grab you and draw you in, and for me The Lions of Little Rock was that book. I read it’s nearly 300 pages in one day, an unheard of feat for me. It is easily one of the best books I’ve read in years. Most of us have heard of the famed Little Rock Nine, but life in the post-integration time was not as well-known to me, and this time period makes for an excellent backdrop on a terrific coming of age story. The issue of integration burns bright in Little Rock, but even within her family of educators, the issue is divisive, and I think that adds a great dimension to the story.
Marlee now holds a special place in my Literary Character Hall of Fame, right next to the likes of Scout and Atticus Finch. I fell in love with Marlee in the first few pages as she recounts a failed attempt to go off the high dive. She is painfully shy and quirky, but so, so endearing. A gifted mathematician, Marlee dreams of a world in math and science, despite it being a time when “girls didn’t do math.” Levine masterfully lets you inside Marlee’s anxiety and you feel for her.
A number of inspiring characters like Liz and her math teacher, Mr. Harding, start to build up Marlee’s confidence. With this new found courage, she realizes her efforts can make a difference even in her own quiet way.
“I cared. Helping Liz and leaving notes for Mother and sending candy bars to Judy was nice, but it wasn’t enough. Not when there might be more that I could do.”, page 132
Throughout the story, the stakes get higher and higher for Marlee’s family and Liz’s family, as the integration issue comes to a boil. Her spirit shines through it all, and I think that Marlee will be character you won’t soon forget. The Lions of Little Rock is a great book about a serious subject but I think readers will connect with Marlee’s own struggle to make sense of a complex issue.