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"The Lions of Little Rock," by Kristin Levine

I wish everyone who read and enjoyed The Help (by Kathryn Stockett) would pick up a copy of The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine. That's how much attention I'd like this book to get.

Levine's story takes place in 1958--a year after the events of the Little Rock Nine at Little Rock Central High School. In this book, the main characters are younger but integration is still the theme. At the start of the novel, white Marlee is 13, as is her new friend, Lizzie. Lizzie is attending Marlee's school because she is light-skinned enough to pass for white. She's soon found out, though, and when she must go back to her own school, Marlee is devastated. Marlee is exceptionally shy and hardly ever talks outside of her home, but with Lizzie she found a friend she trusted.

Like The Help, The Lions of Little Rock examines how fear and racism intertwine. In The Help, many of the black women were afraid to tell their stories because they didn't want to lose their jobs. In The Lions of Little Rock, fear is shown to be a motivation, in some ways, for racism. Of course, it's not the only cause, but it sheds light on why we often treat others badly. In this children's novel, many people -- white and black, but mostly white -- are afraid of change. Marlee has to fight to keep her friendship with Lizzie, but in doing so puts Lizzie's family in danger. Neither family is convinced the girls should be friends. And both families aren't sure that Marlee can actually help Lizzie's family. Marlee's mom, especially, is afraid of the changes that might come if schools are integrated. At one point, Lizzie is so afraid of her family's safety that she tells Marlee that their friendship is doing more harm than good. Marlee is again devastated.

The book has a nice story arc -- I've been looking more and more at how well novelists achieve a beginning, middle and end -- and Levine does it well. The book has a good pace, with believable conflicts popping up, leading to a rather dangerous and scary confrontation that helps to change at least some people's outlooks and bring the girls back together. The novel ends with the two families working with each other. It's not a "tied up in a bow" happy ending, but rather a realistic one: There's still much work to be done.


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