on March 21, 2012
Beginning the new school year in 1958 at Little Rock's West Side Junior High, Marlee wondered how long it would take for her teachers to figure out that she would not speak at school. Not a word, for Marlee did not speak out loud to anyone except her family members.
This situation turned on its head when Marlee befriended a new girl at school named Liz. Liz could somehow understand Marlee and even encourage her to give an oral presentation before the entire class. Surprisingly though, Liz stopped coming to school one day when word got out that she was a light-skinned African American trying to pass as white in an all-white junior high school.
Just a year after the "Little Rock Nine" had courageously integrated the high school, the elementary and junior high schools remained segregated and racial tensions had led to actual closings of the public high schools. Marlee now had a very good reason to find her voice and speak out so she could try to get her friend back.
This skillfully-crafted novel for young adults does an excellent job communicating what it was like to come of age in such a racially charged setting. Along the way the book covers important concepts in economics, especially the economics of education and racial discrimination in the provision of public services. Adding to the uniqueness of the book is its focus on Little Rock in the year after forced integration of the high schools, a year that garnered less coverage in the history books but one that encapsulated further noteworthy events related to integration and social cohesion.
on April 16, 2012
This is such a wonderful novel...I just hope it's not too quiet to attract the attention it deserves. Set in Little Rock when the "colored" people were trying to integrate, the story concerns Marlee (who I might today think has a touch of Asperger's)who is very shy and Liz, a new girl, who doesn't take guff from anyone. The girls become fast friends despite their different personalities. The story is beautifully written -- exciting enough but not overwrought, with a healthy dose of humor. I loved the complex characters that, as in real life, are not all good or all bad. There is enough going on to keep things exciting and the history of the time is realistically woven into the story. I particularly like Levine's strong female characters, and I highly recommend both THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK and Levine's earlier book THE BEST BAD LUCK I EVER HAD to any middle school readers looking for historical fiction with warmth, humor and heart.
on January 30, 2012
Sometimes I think I'm too nice of a book reviewer (read: person). I am guilty-as-charged when finding the best in books (and people), even when they may be sub-par in many respects. I don't believe this to be the case here, though, as I review The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. Levine has built a solid character in twelve-year-old Marlee and the little town that could-not, Little Rock, Arkansas. It's 1958 and Little Rock is still rampant with segregation--even the slightest murmurs of integration are grounds for upheaval. Marlee's character doesn't seem so solid at first, at least socially--she has but one person outside of her family that she will talk to. It's not that Marlee can't talk, is diseased, or incensed with madness. She chooses not to talk. For one, she doesn't like her voice, but it's also clear from that start that she hasn't yet found her voice. Enter Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is everything Marlee wishes she was: boisterous, opinionated, confident. Instead Marlee chooses to recite prime numbers and times tables in her head rather than saying what's on her mind. No sooner does Liz's warmth and friendship encourage Marlee to come out of her shell, Liz vanishes from school. Rumor has it that Liz is really a colored girl who was trying to pass as white. Regardless of race, Marlee knows that she had found a true friend. Nothing, not even segregation laws and the threat of violence, can keep her from her friend.
Levine has blended a great story of friendship and bridging the gap between childhood and tween-dom with an historical period in America that deserves more attention. She focuses on the barriers to education that all families faced in Little Rock, regardless of race. In the wake of the bravery of The Little Rock Nine, the town is divided between those who want segregation to remain and those who are pro-integration. Many families remain divided as well until the threat of violence realigns their good sense to see beyond skin color in order to realize the beginnings of equality (however small). While middle schools and elementary schools stayed open (and segregated), high school students were shut out of an education for the 1958-59 school year due to political bickering over the issue of integration. Many families sent children to live with relatives to continue schooling including, Marlee's sister, Judy.
Marlee's character is looking to build a better world not only for herself but for the people that she holds dear, those in her life who have taken the time to know her and stand by her. From them and the encouragement they give her, Marlee learns to stand on her own and to finally raise her voice (albeit productively). While some of the events seem far-fetched (ahem, a 12-year-old finding a sack of still-charged dynamite), Levine maintains with more of a writer's will than historical aplomb that "perhaps it could have happened." Anything could happen. Lucky for the reader, Levine stretches the confines of an historical reality to make way for appropriate fictional action. The friendship between Marlee and Liz feels comforting and real, the way a young friendship should be--someone to talk to, confide in and break the rules for (or with). Even though there was much social tumult in their young lives, one still gets the impression that Marlee and Liz have maintained most, if not all, of their innocence, curiosity and belief of the goodness that's still possible in this world. This is something that kids today need more of, but it seems as if it's taken away at an ever-increasingly earlier age or it's never really felt at all.
My real gripe with The Lions of Little Rock is the cover. The imagery doesn't give a potential reader much incentive to check-it-out, nor does the puke-yellow color add, well, much at all. The title itself is even a stretch for me. The lions, and even the zoo, do wind and weave into the storyline but that particular caveat seems more important to Levine than it ever will be to the reader (on the dedication page, Levine acknowledges her mother and thanks her "for telling [her] about the lions.") In the author's note, we also learn that Levine's mom grew up in Little Rock, presumably hearing lions. How close does one have to live to a zoo to hear the lions? I'm presuming pretty close, but Levine never makes it clear. So, would lions on the cover work? Maybe not. Should "Lions" in the title work? Maybe not, but it's catchy nonetheless. While I'm at it, I would love to see a map of Little Rock on the frontispiece (including fictional locations in the story) to bring the concept of "a town divided" to the forefront. To be sure, this is a want but I think it would resonate with young readers to incorporate an historical artifact to balance the fictional elements in the plot.
This is a great work of historical fiction. A perfect complement to black history month, or for readers who need a little incentive to stand up and stand proud in life.
Ages 10 & up.
on July 12, 2014
It's only a year after Little Rock became an integrated school, and now the folks in Marlee’s town are putting up a fight to stay segregated. Marlee’s a bundle of nerves before school starts and she has to begin at the junior high. Although she has always been a wiz at math, she suffers from an extreme fear of public speaking and doesn’t talk in public, so no talking in class. Surprisingly, she hits it off with a new girl, Liz, and even starts chatting with her. Marlee can’t believe her luck to have a friend who is just like her in so many ways, but different in ways she admires. In her dreams she's as brave as Liz, and their friendship helps Marlee to shed some of her fears. Marlee’s world is turned upside down when Liz stops coming to school and the rumors swirl that she was light skinned and passing for white to attend their school. At first Marlee can’t believe it, but then she realizes she doesn’t care if Liz is black or white. All she really wants is her friend back, and she's willing to take whatever risks she needs to in order for that to happen. They meet at the zoo near the lions since it's public and they could easily be there at the same time. This allows them to continue their friendship without anyone knowing. What Marlee doesn’t realize is how dangerous their friendship could be, not just for themselves, but for their families. Is it worth the risk for the girls to continue their friendship? What will happen if they're found out by those in the town who support the KKK and segregation? What will Marlee learn about friendship and treating people fairly? You must read this book to find out how everything turns out and if their friendship lasts!
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is a remarkable book about a fantastic girl who is braver than she knows. I loved watching Marlee stand up for what she believes in, and she definitely tried to make the world a better place. It's an excellent book for people of all ages, and I think kids in fourth grade and up will especially relate to Marlee and Liz. The book makes history come alive, and it made me want to clap and cheer for all of the people who have broken and continue to break races barriers and help people see that we are all humans. I found myself nervous about some of the situations Marlee found herself in, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters when I finished the book. I was totally engrossed in this one because the characters are easy to relate to, and I felt like I knew them. I really like Marlee and think she has many qualities that make me want to be friends with her. Without a doubt, this is a story that will make you want to go out and change the world, and it will definitely make people want to be kinder! If you have not read it, I highly recommend it. This story will remind you how far we've come and how each step forward is a step in the right direction.
on August 3, 2014
I truly enjoyed this story. The characters are vivid in my imagination as if it were a movie. It made me reflect on my own childhood in the 60s growing up in Mississippi. I think this book can help students of all kinds discuss this time in history and make a connection for where they are today. I recommend this book for 6th and up, although it could be a good read aloud for a parent and child that leads to some discussion about acceptance of others.
on April 10, 2014
I would have preferred to read this in small groups, but my class was totally engaged with this story as a read-aloud. It was thought-provoking, and also gave us the opportunity the talk about empathy and tolerance. I personally, love this book and my students thoroughly enjoyed it as well.
on April 10, 2014
What started as a book we were required to read for our 7th grade English class turned into a love and deep connection for a book. This was by far the best school book I've read. And I never felt forced to read it.
on December 29, 2012
My "reviews" are really more of a personal response to a book - how I connected to it, what I liked and didn't like. I felt a particular connection to The Lions of Little Rock because I went to high school in Fort Smith, the second largest Arkansas city, in the late 50s, and I had a friend who went to Central High. My grandparents lived in Little Rock and the book snapped me into a recollection of going to the zoo there. I remember the lions and the elegant lion house, which you can see behind the fence on the cover of my hardback copy. I also remember the elephant and her name, Ruth, with fondness. The idea of the roaring lions lulling our heroine to sleep charmed me, and although the book started as a fairly conventional teenage story, when I got to chapter eight where the girls are practicing their school presentation in front of Ruth at the zoo, I was hooked.
The book is an informative sequel to Carlotta Wall's A Mighty Long Way, which I highly recommend. Integration in my high school didn't happen until after I graduated, which was 1960. I didn't recall the Little Rock school closures in 1959 and the grassroots campaign to re-open them. In that respect the book is engaging even as an adult read.
I did have a little trouble with the pat "teenage" story, but am not familiar with that genre. I'd like to know what young readers think of it and hope I can get my granddaughter to read it. Certainly Melee and Liz were strong characters, but the rest of the cast seemed a bit stereotyped. Least convincing to me were the baddies, JT and his brother Red. They got in trouble with the police for throwing eggs at a house on Halloween? That was expected and accepted behavior when I was a kid. But later when they engage in life-threatening racist actions, the police do nothing? That I could believe, but not the egg incident. Also there was a hint that the boys' father abused the mother, but we didn't get a follow-up on that.
I did enjoy seeing Marlee change and grow from the very early chapters, and was especially pleased when she turned down JT in spite of his transformation at the end. Most of all, I liked the message that even young people can make a difference, or maybe ESPECIALLY young people can make a difference when it comes to overcoming prejudice. I've never said this before about a book, but I'd like to see it made into a movie.
Dana Bagshaw, Santa Cruz, CA
on August 3, 2015
Required Summer Reading = Unhappy Tween Boy
My poor boy. Apparently, the school is ruining his summer! Did you know they are intentionally STEALING his vacation time away from him?? Oh, the drama...
Post-meltdown, I went in my closet and had a little laugh, composed myself, and then sat down and made a plan. I've always made an effort to read along with my boy and summertime is no exception. So we went on a book hunt (with a frappuccino stop of course) and printed out all the assignments the school organized for each book...which was a lot I have to admit. With books in hand, and audio on standby to keep us on task, we mapped out which chapters would be read on which days. With 57 chapters, it evened out to approximately ten chapters a day (they're fairly brief chapters). So this is how it went...
Day 1: Chapters 1-9
Day 2: Chapters 10-19
Everything going as planned! Yay!
Day 3: Chapters 20-39
I stopped him at chapter 30 but he wanted to keep reading. Okaaaaay...
Day 4: Chapters 40-57
Again, I stopped him at 50...but he didn't want to stop.
Basically, this is my review. An incoming sixth grader came to this required book with a negative outlook. He had a week to finish it and he finished it in four days. Some may say he just wanted to get it over with, and that may be true, but I was there. His gasps, smiles, and concerned frowns spoke for themselves.
He's working on his assignments as I write this with no complaints. It's like he actually liked the book and doesn't mind reflecting on it...it's my turn to gasp.
My favorite quote:
"We tell kids that sometimes. We pretend the world is straightforward, simple, easy. You do this, you get that. You're a good person and try your best, and nothing bad will happen. But the truth is, the world is much more like an algebraic equation. With variables and changes, complicated and messy. Sometimes there's more than one answer, and sometimes there is none. Sometimes we don't even know how to solve the problem. But usually, if we take things step by step, we can figure things out."
on June 12, 2015
Read it for a mother-daughter book club. We both loved it, as did the other members of the book club. We had a special treat; the author came to our book club meeting and spoke and answered questions, which provided insight into how she researched and developed the book.