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.