JUNE 15:

  • Happy birthday Betty Ren Wright (The Dollhouse Murders) and Loreen Leedy (Measuring Penny).
  • Happy birthday Arkansas, which became the 25th U.S. state in 1836. Read The Painters of Lexieville by Sharon Darrow and Summer of my German Soldier by Bette Greene.
  • It’s Smile Power Day. Read Smile by Raina Telgemeier, Smile! By Leigh Hodgkinson, Smiles to Go by Jerry Spinelli, and Grandma’s Smile by Randy Siegel, illustrated by DyAnne DiSalvo.

On June 15, 1836, Arkansas became the 25th state admitted to the Union. Hence today marks Arkansas Admission Day. Certainly in the last part of the twentieth century, Arkansas has loomed large in American politics: It’s the home state of President Bill Clinton and also the site of the highly contested 1957 attempt to integrate schools in Little Rock.

In her second novel Kristin Levine explores the year of 1958, when all Little Rock high schools closed to prevent integration. The story begins and ends with twelve-year-old Marlee standing on a diving board. A character riddled with fears, Marlee can’t bring herself to jump into the water—she can’t even express herself by talking. A scared but intelligent young girl, she gets pushed around by her parents, older sister, friend Sally, and classmate  J. T. who insists that Marlee complete his math homework.

But all this begins to change when Marlee befriends a new girl in school named Liz, who helps Marlee find her voice. And then the unimaginable happens—Liz has to be withdrawn from school because she is a black girl who has been “passing” as white. While she is devastated by Liz’s deception, Marlee still does not want to lose Liz as a friend.

Their personal relationship gets played out against the politics of Little Rock. Adults who want the schools open battle those whose racial hatred makes them insensitive to their own children’s need for education. In this very politically charged environment, Marlee actually finds the courage to take action and to campaign with those who want to reopen the schools. In the end she even risks her own life to protect Liz.

A family, school, and friendship story, the book captures the cry for social justice that erupted in the late fifties and the sixties. It shows how young people can make a difference in the political process. Just as Rita Williams Garcia did in One Crazy Summer, Kristin Levine makes the political events of the era understandable because she finds a way to view them from the eyes of a very sensitive, very appealing child. From this character-driven novel, young people get a sense of historical events and contemplate questions about what courage means in their own lives.

A great book for this day or for summer reading, The Lions of Little Rock should not be missed. I hope it inspires many young people like Marlee to find their own voice, in their own time.

Here’s a section from The Lions of Little Rock:

By mid-September the Supreme Court had decided that integration in Little Rock should proceed, but the schools still didn’t open. For a while it seemed that with the high school closed, there’d be no football too. But the public outcry was so great, the governor called the superintendent and told him to start up the football program again, school or no school. Daddy nearly turned purple when he heard this news. “They’ll let their kids go without an education, but Little Rock won’t stand for no football?”


Originally posted June 15, 2012. Updated for .

Tags: Civil Rights, History, School, Social Conscience
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for The Lions of Little Rock
One year ago: Brian Jacques


  1. Jen Vincent says:

    I love Lions of LIttle Rock! So glad you are sharing it, Anita. Colby Sharp and I are discussing it this month on his blog. Marlee is a great character who reminds me of Mattie from Hound Dog True. Kristin does a great job of helping us see how shy Marlee is and how hard it is for her to interact with others because of her shyness. I couldn’t help but root for Marlee and her friendship with Liz – and what it meant for them to be able to friends.

  2. Barb says:

    For our middle school One Book, One School program this summer, we are reading a book from the Captured History series which includes Little Rock Girl 1957. Our summer program info (w/ pictures of the books!) is here:
    I found the story of the picture and the incident a perfect read for upper elementary to middle schoolers. It’s not very long and might be a nice companion to The Lions of Little Rock.

  3. Beverly says:

    Yet another good book to add to my reading list. I loved One Crazy Summer, so I know I will like this one, too. Thanks for sharing.

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