I talk a lot. Just not out loud where anyone can hear. At least I used to be that way. I'm no chatterbox now, but if you stop me on the street and ask me directions to the zoo, I'll answer you. Probably. If you're nice, I might even tell you a couple of different ways to get there. I guess I've learned it's not enough to just think things. You have to say them too. Because all the words in the world won't do much good if they're just rattling around in your head.
The year is 1958, and 12-year-old Marlee is beginning West Side Junior High School. An intelligent, but extremely quiet girl, Marlee is often at the mercy of her bossy and outspoken "friend," Sally.
Judy sighed. "Why are you even friends with Sally McDaniels?"
I shrugged. Sally and I have been friends ever since were five and she pushed me off the slide at the park.
"She likes to boss you around," Judy said.
That was true. But she was also familiar. I like familiar.
So, when she is befriended by Liz, the affable newcomer to school, Marlee is most pleasantly surprised. Marlee, who has a penchant for categorizing people as beverages, finally questions Liz as to why she is helping Marlee to overcome her debilitating shyness,
For the first time, Liz was silent. Behind her, the giraffes chewed their cud. "I thought it might be hard always being quiet," Liz said finally. "I thought you needed a friend."The two become inseparable. But one day, after a chance encounter with Sally and her mother near the Baptist church in the "colored part of town," Liz stops coming to school. Word leaks out that she's been "passing," pretending to be white, in order to attend a better school. Central High may have been forcibly integrated last year, but change has not come to West Side Junior High, and Hall High remains closed, forcing Marlee's older sister to attend school out of town. The status quo sits well with Marlee's mother, but her father, a teacher in the district, is disturbed. The tension in Marlee's household mirrors that of the town's. Liz and Marlee's friendship is a cause for concern in Marlee's part of town and Liz's; the threat of violence looms ahead.
She was right. I did.
"I needed a friend too," said Liz.
And suddenly I knew what Liz was -- a cup of warm milk with a dash of cinnamon.
A stellar depiction of "us vs. them" mentality, The Lions of Little Rock shows the awful consequences of race against race, neighbor against neighbor, even husband against wife. Betty Jean, the maid at Marlee's home and the wife of the pastor at Liz's church, creates the story's bridge between the two neighborhoods. The Lions of Little Rock offers no easy answers, no neatly wrapped happy endings. Brave Marlee will risk anything to stand by her friend, but her brave actions do not right the wrongs of the world; rather, they place the life of her dear friend and others in grave danger. Life is messy. Neither life nor its people can be neatly separated into black and white. There are always shades of gray.
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An interview with Kristin Levine is at The Fourth Musketeer.
Note: The librarians of NJLA's Children's Services Section are discussing this book and others on their mock Newbery blog, Newbery Blueberry Mockery Pie. Please feel free to join them with your comments.