Title: The Lions of Little Rock
Author: Kristen Levine
Publisher: Putnam Juvenile
Audience: Ages 10 and up
Summary: In 1957 nine black students entered Central High School in Little Rock and President Eisenhower sent troops to protect them. The story was covered by almost every newspaper in the country. Far less publicity was given to the following year, 1958, when schools were closed in Little Rock to prevent integration. Cohen has chosen to set her story in this year, when the real struggle to integrate the schools took various forms and voices. In this year the friendship of Marlee, a silent, shy, math whiz and Liz, a confident, verbal leader begins. When Liz invites Marlee to work with her on a history project, Marlee’s life begins to change. Then suddenly, the day of the presentation, Liz is gone from the school. She, it becomes known, is a light-skinned African-American who has been “passing as white,” an action that can bring serious consequenses to her and to those who have associated with her. While Marlee and Liz seek ways to continue their friendship, meeting at the zoo, the adults in their lives are struggling to open the schools and to prevent violence. Marlee’s sister Judy has gone to Pine Bluff to stay with her grandmother so that she can finish high school and Marlee’s father loses his job because of his pro-integration activities. Marlee finds her voice in these struggles. The schools will eventually open; Marlee and Liz will contact each other in the future only by phone.
Literary elements at work in the story: This is a multi-layered novel that is based on solid research. Though it is never didactic, it shows the complexity and the intensity of the integration crisis for both blacks and whites, young and old. The zoo is near Marlee’s house and the lions are literally and symbolically part of the story. Voiceless Marlee is another symbol, a symbol of a city struggling to speak out against racial inequality. The novel is peopled with real characters-parents, students, teachers and only one stereotype, Red, the violent racist. There is gentle humor here but only a muted happy ending.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Racial prejudice is clearly the major factor in this story but it takes a number of forms-violence, indifference, compromise, and growing understanding. Marlee, a gifted math student, knows that girls are ignored in the emphasis on science in the Sputnik era. Women, canny and courageous, are the primary movers in the effort to open the schools.
Theological Conversation Partners: Marlee finds courage from a verse she hears at Sunday school, 1 Peter 3:14, a verse she later shares with her mother. Peter was encouraging the early church as it faced persecution in the Roman empire. Scripture is filled with stories of people who courageously took unpopular stands from Moses through Daniel to Peter. Jesus was nearly lynched when he included outsiders in God’s promises. (Luke 4:16-29) and faced criticism for his association with outcasts. (Luke 5:27-32) Jesus, in fact, says that “persecution for righteousness sakes is a blessing. (Matt. 5:10). The church in this novel is a cautious seed bed for pro-integration activities, certainly not as central as it was in the Civil Rights movement throughout the south.
Faith Talk Questions:
- Prejudice is the driving force in this novel. What do you know about prejudice? Have you experienced it? Are there individuals or groups that experience prejudice in your school or community?
- What do you know about the Civil Rights movement? About the desegregation of schools in the south? Over a half century has passed since the events of this story. Can you see changes? Can you see things that have not changed?
- Friendship is a major part of the story. At the very end of the book Marlee tells Liz that a friend is someone who helps you change for the better. What do you think of this definition of friendship? How did Liz help Marlee change? How did Marlee help Liz?
- Marlee pursues her friendship with Liz despite both sets of parents forbidding it. She thinks this is the right thing to do. What are the consequences? Who was right, Marlee or the parents?
- When STOP wins the election and teachers are rehired, Marlee is depressed. Why? Her math teacher compares the world to an algebra problem with variables and changes. What does he mean by this? Have you tried to do something good or worked to solve a problem like world hunger or teen age drinking and found the problem too difficult to solve?
- Have you faced an experience where it took courage to do or say the right thing? Jesus promises that the Spirit will help you. Choose some words from the Bible that could give you courage. A few suggestions: Philippians 4:13; Matt. 27:20 b; Ps. 138:3. Ps. 56:4.; 1 Peter 3:14
- Identify the Little Rock Lions.
This review was prepared by regular reviewer Virginia Thomas.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Books written for Grades 5-8 (Ages 10 -13), Books written for Grades 9 - 12 (Ages 14-17), Faith Questions For...., High School Students, Middle Schoolers, Older Elementary Tagged: | courage, Friendship, integration, Little Rock, racism, schools