1958, Little Rock, Arkansas: A year has passed since nine courageous African American students – history’s “Little Rock Nine“ – integrated Central High School. Just days before the new school year is scheduled to begin that September 15, then-Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus closed the city’s three high schools rather than adhere to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling to continue integration.
Not directly affected herself, Marlee, 12, starts middle school. She’s gifted with numbers, but has trouble with words … especially when she has to speak them out loud. Her excruciating shyness keeps her voice locked inside: “… I’m not stupid, I’m scared.” Then she meets Liz, the new girl, who immediately stands up to the class queen bee, but with such delightful aplomb that she is instantly everyone’s friend, including Marlee. In the midst of working on a school project – which Liz has convinced Marlee that Marlee can and will present to the whole class in her own voice! – Liz disappears. The truth is highly disturbing: Liz is barred from school … because in spite of her light skin, she is black. Marlee learns the ugly reality of “passing.”
Life at home becomes increasingly unstable. Her older brother has left home for college. Her older sister – and greatest ally – has been sent to live with their grandmother so she can continue high school elsewhere. Her parents are fighting more and more – seemingly arguing opposite sides of the integration divide. Citing her safety in an already volatile situation, both parents forbid Marlee from any contact with Liz. Then the family’s maid’s teenage son gets arrested for a crime he didn’t commit – and Marlee knows he’s innocent because she knows who’s really guilty. Little by little, she realizes that doing the right thing sometimes means you’ve got to start with doing more wrong.
Kristin Levine – whose mother was born in Little Rock – has constructed a remarkable novel, so intricately layered and yet perfectly pieced together. Beyond its feat of page-turning storytelling (track-whooshing, too, if you choose to listen to Julia Whelan’s excellent narration), Lions also is an outstanding history lesson, made even more extraordinary by its lack of finger-pointing judgment. Beyond the huge public moment in 1957 that was Little Rock integration, Levine returns to the citizens’ everyday experiences after the national news cameras turned off: “Many citizens of Little Rock were embarrassed that the world saw only the hate and bigotry in their town,” she writes in the “Author’s Note” at book’s end. “In contrast, by 1958-59, some people in Little Rock had started to speak out … when the city seemed to find a voice.” That voice Levine entrusts to young Marlee, who learns to use it with deliberate tenacity and unswerving courage.
Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult