I’m loving my new job (although not the 6 am wake up time), and have been looking through all the books at the school that I can get my hands on. One of these, The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, I found in the school’s teacher book room thinking it might be nice for a diversity unit.
As twelve-year-old Marlee starts middle school in 1958 Little Rock, it feels like her whole world is falling apart. Until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is everything Marlee wishes she could be: she’s brave, brash and always knows the right thing to say. But when Liz leaves school without even a good-bye, the rumor is that Liz was caught passing for white. Marlee decides that doesn’t matter. She just wants her friend back. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are even willing to take on segregation and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.
Normally I don’t reach for books like this – young adult books set in a historical period with a clear agenda. If done wrong, they come off as preachy (aka a lot of the books I had to read in school). The Lions of Little Rock does it right though. The events happening in Little Rock are an important aspect of the book, but are in the background for the first part of the book, letting the reader focus on main character Marlee instead.
Marlee was a great protagonist. So shy at the beginning of the novel that she barely speaks, I identified with her during my shiest moments from school, and I loved watching her slowly open up to the people around her. Levine handled this aspect of the book really well, Marlee’s progress made sense and didn’t feel forced for the sake of the plot.
Marlee and Liz’s relationship was a job to watch unfold (SPOILERS even the heartbreaking ending – still sobbing). Marlee’s relationships with others also really worked because the characters felt real and Marlee’s interactions revealed so much about how she perceived people and the world.
The events in Little Rock play an important role in this book, but as I said, what makes Levine succeed where others failed was that she lets them take a backseat for a large part of the novel. First we get to know Marlee and we watch her make friends with Liz. There are hints of the conflict from the start, but they don’t become a focus for Marlee until they actually enter her world in a personal way. That meant that instead of feeling forced down the reader’s throat, I was really interested when Levine finally revealed where all the carefully laid plot threads were leading.
I’ll have to see if there’s time this semester, but I think my students would enjoy this book as much as I did.
Stay magical readers!