Saturday, May 26, 2012

Book Review: The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine

As most of our organized academic activities wind down for the school year, other things start up for the summer.  One of our favorite and most important projects for the summer is the beginning of my son's Mock Newbery Book Club for the current year.

The point of the Mock Newbery Book Club is to read as many of this year's eligible young adolescent books (geared for ages 9-14) as possible in order for the group to pick the book they believe should be awarded the Newbery medal for outstanding writing in January 2013.  It is a great activity for voracious readers like my son, because it encourages them not only to read more widely than their own interests might lead them, but also to practice assessing, analyzing, and discussing this year's books with their friends.

While parents are not involved in club, other than chauffeuring the students to the library, which hosts the book club, I try to read as many of the more promising books as I can, although I probably only get to about 20% of all the books my son reads for the club.  Still, I've really enjoyed reading the current books for this age group.

The group had its first organizing meeting a week ago, and my son brought home his first batch of books to read, including The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.  I picked it up and started to read it, and found I couldn't put it down.  I just finished it last night, and I couldn't believe what a good book it was!  The experience reminded me of last year, where the first books I read for the 2012 Newbery award was Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt, which ended up being my favorite book of the year  (read my review here).

So I loved this book, which is set in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958, the year after the famous Little Rock Nine integrated the schools under the protection of the National Guard.  The protagonist is a girl named Marlee, whose shyness and social anxieties have rendered her virtually speechless outside of her family.  But things for Marlee when a new girl, Liz, comes to school.  Liz befriends Marlee and works with her to overcome her fears about speaking in front of others.  But just as Marlee is prepared to take a breakthrough step, Liz drops out of school amidst rumors that she was actually a "colored" girl passing as white.  Marlee is confused, angry, and perplexed.  But she refuses to take this sudden disappearance of her first true friend lying down.  And Marlee's investigation of this situation leads her to a whole new level of understanding of herself, her family, her peers in school, her community, and the entire political situation in which she is living.

I found this to be a wonderful and nuanced presentation of the conflicts and concerns of that era that can be understood by the intended age range, but also appreciated by an adult like me.  One reason I think it really works is because Marlee's journey is personal, not political, so the story never gets polemic or strident, and the characters aren't all-good versus all-bad.  It is a well done, highly layered story, so as Marlee digs deeper and deeper not only into understanding the racial issues, but also becoming more aware of the complexities that drive the people in her life, she leads us to a better feel for how good people could allow something as wrong as racial prejudice to rule their lives for so long.  And yet, Marlee and the other young people in the book feel real, not merely mouthpieces for the author's opinions.

In the afterword, author Kristin Levine said she traveled to Little Rock for research on her intended project to write a historical fiction book about the Little Rock Nine.  Once there, however, she found that people wanted to talk about the year after that--the year that the first the government shut down the public high school system, rather than allow integration to continue, and that the community started, for the first time, to fight back.

As Albert Einstein said, "The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing."  Levine chose not to retread the important, but oft-told story of the nine courageous students who integrated the school, but instead to focus on what made the community stop looking on and doing nothing.  Which makes this book a valuable lesson to our children not just about how these moral dilemmas were worked out in the past, but about what they will undoubtedly be called upon to deal with at some point in their future.

So, all in all, what a doozy of a first book to read for this year's Newbery list!  Obviously, I highly recommend it, and it is at the number one spot for my personal list of Newbery 2013 contenders.

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