Friday, January 31, 2014

The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine, 2012

Two girls separated by race form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958
Twelve-year-old Marlee doesn't have many friends until she meets Liz, the new girl at school. Liz is bold and brave, and always knows the right thing to say, especially to Sally, the resident mean girl. Liz even helps Marlee overcome her greatest fear - speaking, which Marlee never does outside her family.
But then Liz is gone, replaced by the rumor that she was a Negro girl passing as white. But Marlee decides that doesn't matter. Liz is her best friend. And to stay friends, Marlee and Liz are willing to take on integration and the dangers their friendship could bring to both their families.

When I'm out somewhere new, I find myself shrinking inward. I have to clear my throat before I talk and when it does come out my voice is somehow softer. When visiting new small groups I'm the one who goes and sits in a corner, unable to join in the merriment until someone pulls me in and makes me forget to be shy. When I'm at home, no one could ever call me shy. But when I'm out, sometimes I am.

Marlee? Marlee is like me, but a hundred times amplified. And then doubled again. She has a list in her head of people she can talk to, and it boils down to her family members (not so much her mother, though) and - well, and nobody. Her best friend is math, math that doesn't change or give wonky answers. She sticks to her math, and to her family, and doesn't pay attention to anything else. Even though she lives in Little Rock, Arkansas (the year after the Little Rock Nine), it really doesn't affect her other than when her sister's high school closes so white kids don't have to go to school with black kids.

So then what happens when a new girl comes to Marlee's junior high? Liz is confident, smart, and pretty. Black hair, brown eyes - and a deep tan, even though Marlee never saw her at the pool. Before Marlee knows it, she realizes that she can talk to Liz without any problems. They work together on their social studies project, and Liz even manages to convince Marlee to speak her part of the history presentation. But then. Then. The day of the presentation, Liz isn't at school. Marlee's teacher pulls her aside and tells her, "Liz was a negro passing as a white. She's not coming back."

And Marlee's world collapses. The one true friend she ever really had, is a negro. Liz is in big trouble with people of both skin colors, and Marlee can never see her again. Or so they say.

Marlee is determined to keep the best friend she's ever had, but there's a whole world of prejudice standing between them. Marlee has to decide what exactly she stands for, and how far she'll go to defend it. And she might just find her voice in the process.
I actually read this book on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It was a total coincidence, and it wasn't until I was halfway through both the book and the day that I glanced at my calendar and put two and two together. Then I went, "oh, cool!" and took that as an excuse to ignore everything around me and finish the rest of the book.

This really was a great book, and it didn't just focus on the problem of segregation. Marlee also had to deal with the boy at school who looked like an angel (and made her do his math homework), her suffering relationship with the mother she had nothing in common with, and the sister she always relied on growing up and moving away both physically and emotionally. 

Marlee learns that to stand for what you believe in, sometimes you have to defy the rules and take the plunge. And that sometimes, even when you know you're right, the rest of the world might disagree. 
And just because you do something with good intentions, doesn't mean innocent people can't get hurt.

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