The Teaser: Marlee is nearly 13 years old and that means it is high time for her to get over her fear of... well, fear of almost everything, actually. A quiet girl, who greatly prefers math and numbers to words and people, Marlee lives her life categorizing people as what type of drink they'd be and following around the same Queen Bee bossy and popular girls that she's known forever. When the school year starts and Marlee meets outgoing new girl Liz (warm milk with a dash of cinnamon), she thinks things might have changed. With Liz's help, Marlee begins to overcome her fear of speaking to other people and learns what it's like to have a real friend who shares her interests for the first time. But when Liz suddenly withdraws from school and disappears without a word, Marlee is hurt and confused. The rumor that Liz is actually a African American girl who has been passing as white doesn't do anything to make Marlee feel any better. Caught between her integrationist father and don't-rock-the-boat mother, in an ugly year where all of Little Rock's public high schools stayed closed to prevent integration and racial tensions are at an all time high, all Marlee knows is that finding and keeping her first friend is worth risking the wrath of the entire city. What follows is a story of first crushes, family relationships, finding a voice and becoming brave in ways you never knew the word brave meant. A story about two girls who know that they need each other and are willing to risk just about anything to stay friends.
What Stands Out: Oh man, Marlee, I feel you. It is hard to have a crush on that popular boy and then realize that maybe he's not all that after all. It is hard to finally have someone that you can confide in, only to have them yanked away without any warning. And it is hard when even your home feels like a battleground and you don't know where you fit anymore. Nothing on Marlee's journey, from when we first meet a terrified 12 year old chickening out on a high dive to the end where she's standing up to Ku Klux Klan members, feels forced or rushed or anything but a completely natural progression. Levine has a clear voice and skillfully navigates between the real world history that informs the narrative and Marlee's own story. And can we get a what-what for Liz and Betty Jean, the two main African-American characters, who had a lot more to fear than Marlee but who didn't believe in backing down in the face of opposition either.
What Didn't Work: Nope, not a thing. I started reading this book on my lunch break and got so sucked up into the world of 1958 Little Rock that I was 10 minutes late getting back to work. I finished it later that night and immediately sent a friend an e-mail that said "this. book. is. so. so. good."
Anything Extra Special?: Oh heck yes.
I went to college in the great state of Arkansas and I flipping loved it there. Arkansas gets a bad rap a lot of the time but it is truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. While in school I worked at a garden adjacent to Dunbar Junior High, the all black junior high that Curtis goes to in the book. I have friends who went to Central High School, the school that the famed Little Rock Nine integrated in 1957. They can point out rooms where they had classes in the pictures in history books. Reading call backs to all these places that I know made me feel right at home and like I had special insider knowledge- I know exactly how bad it must have felt to get sent to Pine Bluff, a town where I once waited 3 hours for a pizza to come out at the Pizza Hut.
I think most people know the story of the Little Rock Nine, the kids who integrated Central High School. What not a lot of people know about, and I certainly didn't until reading this book, was what happened the year afterwards. While the story in Lions of Little Rock is very much fictional, it's set in the real Little Rock. The one where high schools stayed shut for an entire school year in an attempt to re-segregate the schools. The civil rights and pro-segregation groups featured in this story actually existed, as did the McCarthy-like blacklisting of public school teachers. I appreciated the insider view of how things like a school board election would actually work and I'm that dork who completely ate up the Author's Note at the end where Levine details exactly what was real and gives suggested books for further reading.