Ever since I was young and my parents had the whole family watch the PBS documentary series Eyes on the Prize, I’ve been fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement. Learning about Emmett Till, and then the famous court case, Brown v Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas and seeing the bus boycott and the lunch counter sit-ins, I was alternatively amazed, appalled and astounded by this time in our country’s history. I have since read some incredible books on this time period, most of them nonfiction texts.
So I was eager to read The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. At first I assumed it would be about the Little Rock Nine (the nickname given to the 9 black students who integrated Little Rock Central High in 1957) but was actually pleasantly surprised to see the focus of this book is on what happened the year AFTER the school was integrated. Not many know that the governor, rather than allow black students to attend with white, shut down the high schools. Marley, a 7th grader attending a junior high school watches as her older sister Judy is forced to stay home from school, then has to leave town and attend school where their grandmother lives when the high schools remain closed the entire year. For Marley, this seems the most traumatic thing that can happen to her, until she becomes friends with a new girl at school. A girl named Liz. Liz is different in that she challenges Marley. While Marley is great in Math, she has a really hard time speaking to people, even her own mother, about what is important to her and even sometimes just the mundane things in life. When Liz and Marley become partners for a class project, Liz works hard to get Marley ready to speak in front of their whole class. Then, something happens that shocks Marley to her core, and shakes up not only her life, but ripples with far reaching consequences.
I really loved this book, not only for the time period and subject matter but for the thoughtfulness of Marley and Liz’s friendship, as well as the complexities of family life. When do you have to stand up and when is it okay to keep quiet? Marley has to come to grips with how to answer these questions, and as a reader, you will ponder them yourself.
Recommended for grades 6 and up.