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Marlee’s world is changing. Her older brother is off to college, her sister is being shipped off to their grandmother’s because the high schools are all closed in protest of integration and she’s not sure she’ll be able to handle things on her own. She’s basically a selective mute speaking only to her family (mostly her sister) and providing one word answers at school when forced. And then Elizabeth shows up. Liz has a way of pulling the words out of Marlee and making her do things she never thought possible. But when it’s discovered that Liz is actually a light-skinned Negro their friendship becomes forbidden. Their world is volatile and the racial tensions in the city are real and life threatening.
When Liz goes back to her school she enlists Marlee to help her learn to be quiet and ignore the comments and slams she receives. The girls sneak around in an effort to see each other and call each other on the phone using fake names. Their efforts lead to more and more trouble until it escalates into an older white boy’s violent actions against Liz’s family and neighbors. But the girls won’t be deterred.
Listening to the lions in the nearby Little Rock zoo roar each night Marlee bolsters her courage (much as the lion in the Wizard of Oz, a movie the girls see together, does as well.) She decides to do what she can to keep the first friend she’s ever had.
Marlee and Liz deal with realistic portrayals of racism, ignorance and bigotry even from members of their own families. There’s a lot of history here with some background information on the NAACP, Emmitt Till, John Carter, the KKK, the Little Rock Nine, lynchings, bombings and more. There’s enough info given to explain the gravity of the situation without dwelling on it all, as befits the target audience.
Marlee is a fantastic character with a great voice and insight into the people around her. Because so much of her dialogue (at least at the beginning of the book) is internal we see her growth and evolution in a very direct way through her thoughts but also the words she chooses to say aloud and those she chooses to say them to.
Here’s a sampling:
You see, to me, people are like things you drink. Some are like a pot of black coffee, no cream, no sugar. They make me so nervous I start to tremble. Others calm me down enough that I can sort through the words in my head and find something to say.
My brother, David, is a glass of sweet iced tea on a hot summer day, when you’ve put your feet up in a hammock and haven’t got a care in the world… (pg 5)
Each new person she comes to interact with is labeled in this way; bubbly sodas, wholesome milk, shots of whiskey. Eventually it all leads to this conclusion near the end of the book:
Summing people up as a cola or a coffee wasn’t really fair. Most people were a whole refrigerator full of different drinks. Trying to force them into one cup or one glass meant I never really got to know them. (pg 271)
Not only does little Marlee find her voice but through her influence the people around her find their voices as well and slowly change begins to come. This is a quietly powerful fictionalization of ‘the lost year,’ 1958 (the year following the events of the Little Rock Nine) and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in history, the Civil Rights movement, equality or just plain great stories.
The Lions of Little Rock
Written by: Kristin Levine
Number of Pages: 298
Publisher: Puffin Books, 2013
Age Range: 8-12