The Lions of Little Rock. By Krisitin Levine. Putnum Juvenile, January 2012. 304 pages. $16.99.
The Lions of Little Rock is about an event in history I was not aware of before reading this book. In 1957, nine African-American high school students were integrated into the Little Rock schools and they were known as “The Little Rock Nine.” But this book tells the story about what happened after that. The city was so torn about integration that the next school year, all of the high schools in the city were closed for the entire year rather than integrate. But this story is also about Marlee, a 12-year-old girl who befriends a new girl at school named Liz, only to find out when Liz disappears from school that she was passing as white. Most of all, however, this is a story about Marlee finding her voice.
When the book starts out Marlee is very shy. The only people she talks to are her parents, her brother David, and her sister Judy. Other kids in her school even think she is mute. It is easy to sympathize with this character, especially if you have ever experienced shyness yourself. It is very rewarding to watch Marlee’s growth over the course of the year as she learns to speak up when she sees injustices around her.
The one thing Marlee does love is math. I though this aspect of Marlee’s personality was done very well. I liked that she counted prime numbers to herself when she was nervous, and her interest in magic boxes had me wanting to learn more. Another interesting thing that Marlee does is compare the people in her life to different beverages. “My brother, David, is a glass of sweet iced tea on a hot summer day,” or “Turns out Betty Jean wasn’t just plain water after all. She had a twist of lime that was all her own.” I really enjoyed this unique way of looking at the world, and it’s a good introduction to metaphors for readers. One thing I did notice that was slightly odd was how many times there are spilled drinks in the story, especially in the beginning of the book. I’m still trying to decide if there is any meaning behind this, but it was noticeable.
The historical and civil rights aspects of the story are done very well. We learn a lot about race relations during this period and the ugliness of the racism at this time is not lightly glossed over. This will foster a lot of discussion and if handled well can make this a powerful book. However, because of the racism and the violence and the scary situations that are portrayed, I would be careful about recommending this to younger children. I think for ages 12 and up would be a good guide for this one. There are many lessons to be learned from this book: friendship, finding a voice, courage, and civil rights are just a few. I am sure this book will be discussed in the months leading up to Newbery 2013. I would say it is a definite contender and a very enjoyable story.