Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Lions of Little Rock



Remember my blog post from a few weeks ago? It was all about the Newbery books and the other recent award winners? And I babbled on about the overrepresentation of historical fiction in this year's and last year's Newbery crop, and how I hoped that next year's selections would be more diverse?

Yeah. I'm going to do a 180. Because come Newbery time, I'm going to be rooting for The Lions of Little Rock. I'm going to be rooting hard. This is magic. This is superb.  This sophomore novel from Kristin Levine is simply outstanding. You will remember this story for a long time. Aaaand....she's a Virginia writer! (Lives in Alexandria.)

Marlee is a quiet girl. So quiet that some people assume that she's mute. It takes a new student, Liz, to bring her out of her shell.  Liz is outgoing, smart, and loves the zoo and math--just like Marlee.

Liz suddenly and unexpectedly leaves their school. The official story is that she's very sick, but there are whispers going around. Lots of rumors.  Rumors saying that Liz was "passing"-pretending to be white. And in 1958 Little Rock, one year after Central High School was officially integrated and tensions still running high (and the governor about to close schools to prevent more integration), this spells trouble and danger for Liz and her family.

Kristin Levine's debut novel, The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, was a remarkable achievement. The Lions of Little Rock is pure evidence that Levine is a tremendously gifted writer of children's fiction.  She shows the integration struggle as it truly was--an issue that divided families (Marlee's father is firmly in favor of integration, but her mother is not).  Although several characters initially against integration do change their viewpoints, it is a gradual and believable change.  The friendship between Marlee and Liz is bittersweet, with a realistic (and open ended) conclusion. 

One criticism I had with The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had was that the two main characters went on a high-jinks adventure that jarred with the rest of the story. The Lions of Little Rock also include an adrenaline-pumping scene, yet Levine makes it completely believable and fits it in with the rest of the story.  I got a little nervous when I realized that she had sent Marlee on a scary adventure; just when I was preparing to be dismayed, she pulled it back and made it totally realistic. Yay!

You so need to read this book. It is an extraordinary achievement. I am so excited about Kristin Levine's career and am looking forward to many more fantastic books from her! 

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