THE LIONS OF LITTLE ROCK by Kristin Levine
One question that comes up a lot in our homeschool these days is “How do you do the right thing when everyone around you seems to be doing the wrong thing?” My kids and I have been so sad to read about expressions of racism in our neighborhood and anti-Semitic comments at the middle school down the street, and we've really struggled with how to respond to hateful comments about immigrants from people we have known for years. Where does all this other-ing come from? And how can we respond to it in a way that’s productive and positive? I don’t know the answers, but I think it starts with being committed to doing the right thing, and The Lions of Little Rock is a great book to kick off a conversation about what “the right thing” might look like for your family.
Shy, anxious Marlee has finally found a friend who really understands her, and thanks to brave, kind, outspoken Liz, Marlee has started to come out of her shell. But then Liz gets kicked out of Marlee’s segregated middle school because the administration finds out that Liz has only been passing as a white student. Marlee knows it’s wrong to treat Liz differently because of the color of her family’s skin, but racial tensions are high in Little Rock, where the local high schools have closed rather than follow the federal government’s order to integrate. With her mom urging her not to rock the boat and a whole city that seems to be against her, Marlee knows it’s going to take all of her courage to speak up for what she knows is right — but she’s finally found something that matters enough to face her fears.
Set during in Little Rock, Arkansas, during the turbulent 1958 school integration period, this book tackles the issue of racism in a thoughtful and meaningful way. The fact that Marlee’s friend Liz is able to “pass” as a white student really hammers home the arbitrary ridiculousness of racism, and I appreciate that the book (mostly) resists the urge to paint characters as clear villains or heroes. A lot of racist people, the book suggests, have been taught to think that way, which means they can be taught to think another way. Marlee and Liz’s friendship is particularly sweet — I like the way that they make each other better people. Marlee definitely gains a lot of strength and bravery from her relationship with Liz, but Liz also grows through her relationship with Marlee. And, of course, I love that Marlee loves math and classifying things and dreams of being involved with the budding space program, even though she can’t help noticing all the NASA scientists are men.
If I have to nitpick, I wish the adult characters had been as nuanced and adaptable as the kids — some of them, especially Marlee’s mom, never developed satisfactorily for me. (But maybe that’s always going to be how adults see children?) There’s a Bible verse that repeats through the story (“But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”) — it felt to me the same way a verse of poetry or bit of the Dao De Jing or other inspirational tidbit would feel, an idea that Marlee carried as a kind of mental talisman, and the book doesn’t have any particularly Christian undertones. Endings are hard to pull off for character-driven stories like this one, and I think the plot gets away from itself a little bit at the end, but it doesn’t detract from the book’s overall quality for me.
Quotable: "We tell kids that sometimes. We pretend the world is straightforward, simple, easy. You do this, you get that. You're a good person and try your best, and nothing bad will happen. But the truth is, the world is much more like an algebraic equation. With variables and changes, complicated and messy. Sometimes there's more than one answer, and sometimes there is none. Sometimes we don't even know how to solve the problem. But usually, if we take things step by step, we can figure things out."