It certainly deserves every bit of praise it has garnered.
Set in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1958, Levine has crafted a story that centers around the segregation/integration of Little Rock's schools. Marlee is twelve years old, the youngest in her family, and for the most part, what I would call a selective mute. She rarely talks at school, yet speaks to her family at home. When Liz, the new girl comes to their school she chooses Marlee to be her friend. With Liz, Marlee is less afraid to speak and try new things. In her Marlee seems to have found a true friend. Until Liz is caught "passing" for white.
Liz must return to her own school, and maintaining a friendship is dangerous for both girls. Tension is high in Little Rock. Marlee's older sister is unable to attend high school because the schools will not open due to the Arkansas governor's rules about segregated schooling. Now, ordinary citizens - Marlee's own mother inlcuded- decide to speak out for what they believe about educating their children.
The Lions of Little Rock has brought this important time period to life. While there have been many books set in 1957 about the Little Rock Nine, Levine has chosen to write about the year following, a time she has researched extensively, and also a time not already overwhelmed with stories written about it.
The Lions of Little Rock is a novel I am so happy to have read- but also to get to discuss with my students. Some of our discussions about this book have centered around the following:
1. Marlee is able to describe people's personalities as various drinks. What kind of drink are you, and why? (This was a difficult concept for my girls to understand. They kept thinking of drinks they liked and selecting them).
2. Does Marlee see herself as brave? Is she? How and why?
3. JT doesn't seem to be a very nice boy at the beginning of the novel. Does your opinion of him change?
4. Kristin Levine did a fabulous job writing about school segregation and life in 1958, America. Find some examples of things unique to that time period that she has included in the novel to help make the setting seem authentic.
5. Why do you think Liz decided to "pass?"
6. Explain the significance of the title The Lions of Little Rock.
7. Do some research on The Little Rock Nine. What was it like for them to try and attend a white school?
With just a little under a month left in the school year, my book club will need to read quickly (for them) to get this book done. Next year I won't wait so long to put this book in the hands of my students.