Now that the Cybils Awards have been announced, and the gag-order lifted for the judges, I can’t wait to share with you some middle grade books that crossed my radar during this process. Some were new to me, and others were rereads that I got something different out of the second time around. So over the next few weeks, you’ll see a series of these “fresh” reviews.
The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
Release date: January 2012
Ages: 10 and up
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.
Like Wonder, this was a reread for me. I first read The Lions of Little Rock in March of last year. It was one of the first middle grade historical fiction pieces I’d read in a long while. Not for any particular reason, but simply because I’d fallen away from the genre.
If that describes you, The Lions of Little Rock is the place to get back on the wagon.
Yes, it’s a story about civil rights (which has been done), and yes, it references the Little Rock Nine (which has also been done). What makes this book unique, is that the story takes place the year after those nine students walked up the steps to Little Rock Central. And rather than focus on those famous high schoolers, this story focuses on the younger (fictionalized) middle school students in the town. What you get is historical fact, tension, fall-out…and compassion, bravery, and respect. Beyond the political story, you have a theme that all middle schoolers can relate to. A coming-of-age story about a girl, Marlee, who struggles to find her voice, both figuratively and literally. And when she does, that voice is powerful. Marlee is a character who seems like any other adolescent girl, but she is a role model for young female readers. A blend of weakness and very real strength, Marlee is who we want our daughters to grow up to be.
As it happens, Levine is local to my area. I had the opportunity to hear her speak at our library a few months ago. Like myself, she is the mother of two young children, has spent time in the classroom, and even discovered her love of writing at a summer program where I worked as a counselor. She is humorous, and genuine, and has a new book scheduled to be released in 2014 (go ahead, add it to your calendar now).
These two books competed for my top vote during judging. I think what attracts me to both, what attracts readers to both, are the very real issues, the strong characters, and the endings that are not quite perfect.
Kinda like real life.