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The Lions of Little Rock [Hardcover]

Kristin Levine

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Book Description

Jan. 10 2012
Two girls separated by race form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958

Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn't have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear - speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.

But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn't matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.

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 "Creating a book that reads as though written in one effortless breath requires a rare talent...Readers will root for a painfully shy girl to discover the depths of her own courage and find hope in the notion that even in tumultuous times, standing up for the people you love can’t be wrong. Satisfying, gratifying, touching, weighty — this authentic piece of work has got soul." --The New York Time Book Review
(The New York Times Book Review)

About the Author

Kristin Levine, the author of ALA Best Book for Young Adults The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  43 reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rutgers University Project on Economics and Children March 21 2012
By Yana V. Rodgers - Published on
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.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Warmth, humor and heart - does it get any better? April 16 2012
By M. Knapp - Published on
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.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In the jungle, the mighty jungle... Jan. 30 2012
By Katie Crook - Published on
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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful story of friendship, courage, and finding your voice. Jan. 20 2012
By J.M. - Published on
Shy, quiet Marlee finds the courage to speak up about things that really matter, thanks to the very special friendship she forms with Liz. And the two of them proceed to help Little Rock find its own voice in the "lost" year after the Little Rock Nine integrated the city's public schools. Exceptionally well-written, and a very convincing portrait of Marlee and what it must have been like to live through that tumultuous--and often dangerous--time. Loved this book!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lions of Little Rock Jan. 21 2012
By M. Tanenbaum - Published on
Some books introduce you to a really special character. Kristin Levine has done that with the protagonist of her new novel, The Lions of Little Rock, twelve-year old Marlee. Marlee is a brilliant math student, who dreams of becoming a rocket scientist (although she wonders if it's only boys who can have careers in math). But at school, Marlee is painfully shy, and is so nervous she's scared of saying anything in class. Not surprisingly, it's difficult for her to make friends. It's 1958 in Little Rock, and Marlee's starting middle school. Her older sister, Judy, should be attending high school, but the governor has closed the schools rather than have them be integrated, even though nine African-American students had enrolled the year before (the famous Little Rock Nine).

Things seem to be improving for Marlee when, much to her surprise, a new girl at school, Liz, comes to eat lunch with her and soon becomes her friend. Liz and Marlee are even working together on an oral presentation for school, and Liz is helping Marlee gather the courage to speak in front of the entire class. But when the big day comes, Marlee is devestated to find out that Liz is not returning to West Side Junior High--and it's for a shocking reason. It turns out that Liz is African-American, but has been "passing" for white. When her identity is discovered, she must withdraw from school.

Although Marlee's mother is shocked by what she sees as Liz' betrayal, Marlee can't help missing her friend. Can Liz and Marlee still be friends even though it's become dangerous for them to even be seen together?

This novel is an excellent pick for tweens and middle school students, exploring serious issues of prejudice within the context of a story of two girls' friendship that students that age will easily identify with. The lions of the title live in the zoo not far from Marlee's house, and she hears them roaring sometimes at night. But the title also refers to the courage that Marlee and Liz demonstrate by fighting the prejudice that was so much a part of their milieu in 1958 Little Rock. Marlee even lies to her family to meet Liz secretly, not thinking that it might be dangerous for Liz and her family for the girls to see each other. The secondary characters in this novel, including Marlee's sister, parents, and their African-American maid Betty Jean are just as skillfully drawn as the two protagonists, and enrich the story as well. I would particularly recommend the book for mother-daughter or library book clubs, since the subject matter and the characters' response to their situations would make excellent material for discussion.

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