Marlee stands on the high dive at her local pool in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1958. She’s almost 13 years old, and she’s afraid to jump. Her 16-year-old sister helps her climb down the ladder. Marlee is afraid of heights and she’s afraid of talking to people. She speaks freely to her family, but not to people outside her family. A new girl at school, Liz, befriends Marlee and helps her to increase the number of people she’s willing to talk to.
The Lions of Little Rock is historical fiction. It is set four years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v The Board of Education that American schools should not be segregated. In Little Rock, the 1958-59 school year is called The Lost Year. It’s the year after the Little Rock Nine, nine black students, were escorted into Little Rock’s Central High School by Federal troops. In 1958-59 the Governor of Arkansas and the Little Rock School District have decided to solve the problem of integration by simply refusing to open four of the high schools in Little Rock.
As the story progresses, Marlee becomes more and more troubled about segregation. It’s a highly volatile issue, at times even dividing Marlee’s family. At the suggestion of her Sunday School teacher, Marlee joins a group of women who are working to re-open the four high schools that have been closed. She also faces down a segregationist who is antagonizing her.
Grassroots politics were pivotal at this time in Little Rock’s history. We watch as Marlee and her parents become more and more politically involved, and as decisions made at a higher level affect what happens at the grassroots level.
The story, told in first person, moves back and forth between politics and Marlee’s own struggles to be more courageous. Friends come and go both at school and at home. Marlee becomes more adept at dealing with the absence of friends, just as she becomes more adept at making new ones.
There is an extensive Author’s Note at the end of the book. The note discusses The Lost Year. Following the note, there are citations for several books that contain more information about the year.
The story moves quickly, with short chapters. There’s a lot of action to pack into this book if it’s going to tell the story of the lost year through Marlee’s eyes. The Lions of Little Rock succeeds quite well.