The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is everything I love in historical fiction: a compelling and well-researched story, well-developed characters, and a definite sense of both place and time in history. It is the story of Marlee Nisbett, a twelve year old girl who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, in the late 1950s. The youngest daughter of two school teachers, she is both quiet and smart in the extreme. She is quiet to the point that she has a short list of people she will actually talk to, and she is smart, at least in math, to the point that it has become a coping mechanism for her: when she wants to avoid thinking about something or finds herself in a situation she’d rather not face, she begins mentally reciting math facts. The story opens the summer after the Little Rock Nine integrate Central High School, which happens to be the school Marlee’s older sister Judy attends, her brother David graduated from, and her mother is starting to teach at for the first time in the new school year. However, the public high schools in Little Rock are closed until further notice because of the issue of integration, so Judy and her mom both stay home instead of going to school on the first day. Marlee goes to school, expecting to do her usual: keep her mouth shut as much as possible and enjoy her math class. That’s it. However, this year her sister challenges her to actually talk to people and try to make a real friend, so when Marlee meets the new girl, Liz, things begin to look up. Liz is everything Marlee isn’t: bold and brash and not afraid to express herself. However, she’s also friendly and a conscientious student, and she and Marlee hit it off almost immediately. Marlee has found her friend! There’s a problem, though, and of course, it relates to race. Liz is found out to be a Negro “passing” as a white girl, so she’s at school one day and literally gone–with no trace–the next. This turn of events sucks Marlee and her family into the vortex of Little Rock politics and race relations and changes them–and the city.
I really like how Marlee changes in this story. She goes from being of having a debilitating form of shyness to “finding her voice,” thanks mostly to her friendship with Liz. I like Marlee’s narrative voice–we get to know her inward thoughts and her desires and longings, particularly when it comes to wanting to be able to express herself and have a relationship with her mother. I like how her relationship with her mother changes through the story and how really every member of her family shows growth. Marlee’s voice is unique, as is the way she sees the world, and Levine does a good job of maintaining Marlee’s voice while still allowing her to grow and change.
This is a quick-moving story about a very tempestuous part of American history, and it doesn’t gloss over the difficult parts. Although Marlee and Liz are fictional characters, Levine includes plenty of actual historical events and people throughout the story. I was very interested to read the Author’s Note and learn how Levine came to change her story after interviewing people from Little Rock who lived during this time period. She originally intended to write about about the Little Rock Nine, but she came to realize that the next year, the year the high schools closed due to the integration issue, is the year the people of Little Rock remember the most. This is something I’d never even heard of! I like that the story doesn’t have a storybook ending, so that what we see is merely a snapshot of history instead of the entire story. As Marlee’s math teacher tells her at the end of the novel:
“I think what’s happened, Marlee, is that you’ve realized the world isn’t an addition problem.”
He wrote 3+4=7 down on the paper. “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.”
He wrote x²+4x-21=0.
“But usually, if we take things step by step, we can figure things out. You just have to remember to factor the equation, break it down into smaller parts.” (269-70)
The Lions of Little Rock is a 2012 Cybils middle grade fiction finalist, and I’m tempted to put it at the top of my list so far. This is a deep and detailed story that is well-researched and should appeal to most anyone middle grader (girl?) who will give it half a chance. At times I felt like the story lacked something–maybe the best word is polish–like maybe it was almost but not quite there stylistically. There seemed to be a flatness at first about it, but I hung in there with Marlee and felt mostly relieved of that feeling in the end. I think it is a strong novel that has the potential to join the ranks of The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 when it comes to middle grade fiction about the Civil Rights movement. Will it beat out Wonder for a Cybil Award? I don’t know. I do know this is a novel worth handing off to the pre-teen or young teen who’s interested in American history and/or coming-of-age stories. Highly Recommended. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2012)
Other 2012 Cybils middle grade fiction finalists I’ve read and reviewed: