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There are a lot of middle-grade novels about the civil rights movement, but The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is one of the best and most complex I’ve read.
The story is set in Arkansas in 1958, the year after the Little Rock Nine became the first African American students to integrate the city’s public schools. Marlee, age 13, hasn’t really given much thought to integration. All of the students in her school are white, like her, so it’s not something she’s really had to think about. She’s got more immediate concerns—like the fact that she has no close friends because she’s too shy to speak up or reach out to anyone.
All of that changes when she meets Liz, the new girl in her class who is bold and smart and somehow makes Marlee feel braver. After Liz reaches out to her, Marlee learns what it’s like to have a real friend—someone who understands her, speaks honestly to her, and gives her the courage to speak up. Until the day Liz disappears.
What Marlee hears is that Liz is actually a “colored” girl who was trying pass as white, which has angered some residents of Little Rock. Liz is not welcome at Marlee’s school and she’s not welcome anywhere near Marlee, who’s devastated. She misses her best friend, but having any contact with her, even by phone, is truly dangerous. Anonymous people have been making threats to Marlee’s family and saying terrible things to Liz.
What do you do when the one person you’re able to talk to is the one person you’re not allowed to see? Do you take that risk anyway—even if it could cost your life or hers?
This is a thoughtful, inspiring, very suspenseful story about fear, prejudice, friendship, finding your voice, and fighting for change. Each time I had to put it down I looked forward to picking it up again, and it made a key chapter from history truly come to life for me.
You can find The Lions of Little Rock on Book Clubs right now.
February 20, 2013