The Lions of Little Rock takes place in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958-59. The main character is a 12-year-old white girl named Marlee. Marlee has an older brother who has just left for college, a high-school age sister and both her parents are teachers.
With the story set in 1958, the town of Little Rock, Arkansas has been in the national spotlight for the 1957-58 school year when, for the first time, nine black students integrated Little Rock’s Central High School. These nine students endured vicious daily harassment in order to attend the public high school and they are known in history as The Little Rock NIne. Federal soldiers were forced to patrol the high school in order to protect the safety of these nine students, as well as their right to attend the school. Despite this, those nine teenagers endured the hate and abuse and completed the school year. Little Rock, Arkansas gained a national reputation for hate.
We join Marlee at the beginning of the 1958-59 school year. Most people are unaware that the year after the Little Rock Nine, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas (with the support of local segrationists) engineered the closing of the public high schools in order to circumvent the federal order that would force them to integrate the schools.
Marlee’s journey is one from quiet and unassuming girl to increasingly confident, courageous young woman. Marlee doesn’t have any real friends–she only speaks to her family and maybe one or two other children–and even then, using as few words as possible. Fear and anxiety are the emotions which consume her days. The first day of school she meets Liz and the friendship that grows between the two girls begins to open a new door of possiblities in Marlee’s experience.
When Liz abruptly disappears and Marlee discovers her new friend is black, she is initially hurt and angry–feeling as though Liz has targeted her to make her look like a fool. This is quickly replaced, however, by her realization that she DOES have a new and wonderful friend in Liz, the kind of friend she has never had before and that she does not want to lose.
Marlee quickly reaches the conclusion that Liz’s friendship is too precious to lose due to the color of either of their skin. As Marlee and Liz pursue their friendship–primarily in secret–Marlee’s eyes are opened to the ugliness of racism in both its verbal and physical violence. Her acknowledgment of the senselessness of the circumstances in her home, her school, her town, her very life lead her to making the choice to find her voice in order to help make a difference and change the way things are.
Marlee’s voice is authentic as a young girl, used to having her own life centered around just herself, gradually realizing how her life might fit in the context of the larger world in which she lives.
The thing I find most compelling about this book is that it is NOT just about integration of the schools and racism in the 1950’s. It speaks to all of us about our choices to be heard and act in way that aligns with what we say believe. The emphasis on the effects of bullying in our school populations over the last few years tie directly into the theme of The Lions of Little Rock in that we are struggling to help each other realize that standing alongside those who are actively hurling verbal and physical abuse and just not saying anything is NOT the same as acceptance of those who are different–in whatever way–or human kindness.
Kristin Levine includes a short afterword int he book in which she remarks on interviewing her aunt (who, had her family not moved away from Little Rock would have been a sophomore at Central HIgh School when the Little Rock Nine integrated the school). Her aunt said she has often wondered what she would have done, how she would have behaved if she had been a (white)student there at the time. Her conclusion was that she was sure she would not have hurled any nasty names or physically intimidated those nine students at all, but her sad confession was that she didn’t think she would have been kind to them either.
The “Lions” of the title literally refer to the lions at the Little Rock Zoo. The real “Lions” in the story, though, are those people who had the courage to be kind and loving to EVERYONE, regardless. I came away from the book with a heavy heart for those who have suffered so much so needlessly as a result of others’ fear and unkindness. And yet I also felt a hopefulness that people like Marlee DO exist–the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s in the United States PROVED that with people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and so many others whose names we son not know but whose actions made a difference in our lives.
I think The Lions of Little Rock gives us as readers the opportunity to become those people who find our voices and make a conscious choice to live with kindness as an active rather than passive value for all human life.
This book is suitable for middle grade readers and above. I highly recommend it as an independent read, but I think reading it together with a young person offers a remarkable springboard for discussion about tolerance, acceptance, values and strength of character. This story is an experience we can all share and from which we can all grow as people.