The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine.
Plot and character development work together in a finely crafted novel. A character wants something but faces difficult circumstances. As she grapples with her problems, she is beaten down by events or her own mistakes. She feels discouraged, flawed, maybe hopeless at times. But little by little, as she feels her way, she learns from her missteps. And she grows stronger. At the end of the novel, we recognize that, whether or not she is successful in getting what she wants, she has developed and changed for the better because of her struggle.
In The Lions of Little Rock (Puffin, 2012), Kristin Levine draws a dramatic character arc that we can believe. At the start, 12-year-old Marlee is so shy, her sister challenges her to say just five words that day at school. Every encounter is traumatic, even those with her mother who is flawed, herself, struggling with the idea of school integration.
This is 1958 Little Rock. Federal law dictates that schools must be integrated, but Arkansas Governor Faubus orders the closing of all Little Rock high schools rather than allow black students to learn with whites. Marlee’s parents disagree on integration, which adds to her stress at home, and Marlee’s sister is sent away to live with her grandmother and go to school.
Marlee finally finds a friend in Liz, a new girl who is everything Marlee isn’t: brave, lively, outspoken. Liz challenges Marlee to talk, and she offers her a golden carrot: her book of magic squares if Marlee will do an oral presentation with her for the class. Liz’s strategy works, but the day of the presentation, Liz doesn’t show; she has, in fact, withdrawn from school. Word gets around that Liz is a light-skinned Negro who tried to pass for white, but she has been discovered. Marlee is devastated that her only real friend is gone. She decides to find Liz to continue their friendship, despite her father’s warning that it would be dangerous for them both.
Dangerous, indeed. In the days that follow, Marlee and Liz face multiple dangers while police look the other way. Marlee comes out of her self-imposed isolation by sheer will, fueled by the love and concern for her friend. We watch her transformation and cheer the strengths she finds in herself. By the last chapter, Marlee is a changed person. She has found her voice, and she has discovered that she, like her new friend, is brave and willing to speak up for what is right. The Lions of Little Rock is a historical novel with much to discuss and think about for young readers. And Marlee is an excellent example of a fully rounded, complex character who grows and develops as she responds to the difficult events in her life.