Review: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. Penguin, 2012. Currently available.

Genre: Middle grade historical fiction.

Face Value: Hurrah! An illustrated cover! I’m happy to see this cover because it is gender neutral and a graceful representation of interracial friendship. It doesn’t really hint at all to the time period of the book. I realize that a publisher may find it advantageous to be ambiguous about the story setting (do historical fiction novels sell fewer copies than contemporary fiction?), but I like to see a hint of the time period in cover illustrations.

Does it break the slate? Yes. Something especially enjoyable about The Lions of Little Rock is that it includes the Slatebreaking journey not only of an adolescent girl, but of her mother as well. The mother-daughter bond grows as both get involved in civic issues. Because of that relationship and the way it develops throughout the book, I think this would be a great book for a family read-along.

Who would we give it to? This is the book for quiet girls. Anyone who is terrified of speaking up and saying the wrong thing, anyone who has to play out conversations in their head before having them, anyone who feels that his or her voice doesn’t matter – they should be reading this book.

Review:  It is a testament to an author’s talent when he or she can make me, the reader, feel deeply connected to a character with which I have little in common. Marlee is a twelve-year-old girl who doesn’t talk much. She speaks so little, in fact, that she can count the number of people she actually talks to on one hand – and they are all members of her family. Her teachers understand that she is bright, but they never expect her to speak in class. She is essentially a high-functioning mute when she is outside of her own home. At first it was hard for me to comprehend Marlee’s situation. I have never been afraid to speak up at school. I tend to ask a lot of questions. Yet Kristin Levine’s writing coaxed me to a point where I empathized with Marlee and keenly understood her inability to speak up.

I’ve also never lived in a community like Little Rock in 1958. Levine’s chosen setting captures a peak time of racial tension in Little Rock, Arkansas. It is the year after President Eisenhower intervened and allowed the Little Rock Central High School to be integrated. Rather than have another year of integration, the Little Rock school district shut down the high school. Students had to go to neighboring towns to get educated and teachers were out of work and out of pay. This was eye-opening for me. Of course I learned about the Little Rock Nine in history classes – but I guess in my naiveté I assumed that they went to school, people were grumpy for a little while, and then everyone got over it and integrated with glee. (Obviously not the case.) The Lions of Little Rock helped me better understand the ongoing battle over integration in Little Rock.

Marlee grows into a Slatebreaking role as the story progresses. She befriends Liz, a new girl in school, and finally finds herself able to talk to someone. And it’s not just talking about homework – Marlee is stunned to find that she feels much better after actually having a personal conversation with someone. When Liz suddenly disappears from school, Marlee is devastated. Who will she talk to now? She learns that Liz is actually a young black woman who had passed for white in order to get into a better school. Marlee becomes confused about their friendship. If Liz was hiding who she really was, how could their friendship have been genuine?

For the first time, Marlee is fired up enough about something to get involved and use her voice. She joins a women’s group that is campaigning in support of integration. She starts speaking up more at home and at school. Marlee’s journey from silent observer to community activist was what made me truly fall in love with this book. As a community educator, I love seeing youth getting involved in their communities and making a difference. Reading about Marlee’s activism was so rewarding because you could tell how difficult it was for her to find her voice, yet she did it anyway.

The book gets even better as Marlee’s mother sheds her cold exterior and finally agrees to support the integration movement. She makes her own Slatebreaking journey as she realizes that standing up for something she believes in is much more important than keeping up appearances in the social circle. What makes this character arc even more appealing is that it shows readers that their positive actions can influence adults – even their parents – and help to change the world.

The Lions of Little Rock is, at its heart, a friendship tale. But it is also so much more than that. It’s a story about community change and the hidden parts of history. It’s a story about finding out that your voice matters, even if it’s a quiet one. Introverts can make a difference.

Reviewed from library copy.

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