Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lions of Little Rock Warm, Memorable Story of "The Lost Year"

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Marlee Nesbitt never says much. It's not that she doesn't have an opinion, it's just that she can't seem to push the words out of her mouth without tying them into a hopeless knot. So the 12-year-old stays quiet. Most people let her be and Marlee's (pretty much) fine with that. Then, Elizabeth Fullerton swishes into West Side Junior High. The new girl is confident, fearless and never afraid to express herself. She's everything Marlee's not and yet, by some crazy miracle, Liz wants to be Marlee's friend. Turns out, they can teach each other a thing or two - Marlee tutors Liz on holding her tongue while Liz helps draw Marlee out of her shell. It doesn't take them long to become bosom buddies.

When Liz disappears, Marlee gets a shock: the rumor mill says Liz was kicked out of school because she's a "colored" girl trying to "pass" as white. Which simply can't be true - Liz is as white as Marlee. It's only when Marlee ventures into the colored part of town that she confirms what everyone else is saying: Liz really does come from a black family. Even though she looks white, she's not. Meaning Liz can't attend a white school. Meaning Liz and Marlee can no longer hang out together. Meaning Marlee's about to lose the best friend she's ever had.

The 1958-59 school year is a tense one in Little Rock, Arkansas. All high schools in the city - white and colored - are closed to prevent integration. Despite Brown v. the Board of Education. Despite the courageous actions of the Little Rock Nine. Despite the well-intentioned protests of WEC and STOP campaigns. The result is a city rife with anger, emotion and fear, a city where supporting educational equality can be not just dangerous, but deadly.

Marlee knows all this, she just can't understand it. Why should she be kept away from a girl as nice and fun as Liz, just because of the color of her family's skin? It's not fair. And Marlee refuses to accept that "that's just the way it is." Now, the girl who never says a thing is going to take a stand. If only she can find the words. If only she can find the guts. If only she can find the voice that's been eluding her her whole life. If only.

While most books about school integration focus on the tumultuous year of 1957, the year nine brave African-American students integrated Little Rock Central High School, Kristin Levine takes a unique approach. Her novel, The Lions of Little Rock (available January 5, 2012), unfolds in 1958-59, a time known as "the lost year." While I've heard all about the Little Rock Nine, I think I've always assumed that they marched in, integrated the schools, and that was that. Well, as Levine proves in her vivid, well-researched story, that was not it at all. While the issue of school integration was batted about by voters, protestors and politicians, teenage students missed an entire year of instruction. Families were torn apart over the polarizing issue, property was damaged, people were terrorized and Little Rock became known as a hotbed of racism. Through the eyes of Marlee Nesbitt, we see it all, experience it all. Most of all, we feel it all - the injustice, the irony, the hypocrisy - through the heart of a young girl who just wants a friend. Marlee's earnestness makes her story warmhearted, meaningful and, most of all, memorable. I loved it.

(Readalikes: Jericho Walls by Kristi Collier, Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith and With the Might of Angels by Andrea Davis Pinkney)

Grade: B+

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG for violence, mild language, and racial slurs

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of The Lions of Little Rock from the generous folks at Putnam (a division of Penguin). Thank you!

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