The Lions of Little Rock

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
May/June 2014

By Kristin Levine, Reviewed by Pamela Picerno

The Lions of Little Rock book cover

The Lions of Little Rock, by Kristin Levine;
Penguin Young Readers Group: New York,
2013; $7.99

Have you ever read a book where you’re able to relate so much to the main character that it’s creepy? The Lions of Little Rock made me feel exactly that way.

It’s 1958, and Marlee Nisbett is a twelve-year-old girl in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is extremely shy and won’t talk to anyone except her family. In this way, Marlee reminds me of myself.

Like Marlee, I’m naturally shy, and for a long time I wouldn’t talk much except to my family and close friends, although I’ve never been afraid to speak up in class. One of my favorite passages in The Lions of Little Rock is when Marlee tells the reader about the lions she can hear roaring every night from the nearby zoo. Every night, as she hears the lions roaring, she thinks maybe, just maybe, the next day she’ll wake up and start talking. But by morning, the lions are silent again, and she loses her courage.

One of Marlee’s most fascinating qualities is how she compares everyone to a drink. Being quiet allows her to observe anyone around her, so to keep track of people, everyone is a specific beverage. Whenever a character changes, their drink changes too. For example, when Marlee realizes that her maid, Betty Jean, isn’t as boring as she seems, Marlee remarks that Betty Jean wasn’t just plain water—“she had a twist of lime that was all her own.”

On the first day of junior high, a day that Marlee is sure will be just as embarrassing as all other school days, Marlee meets Liz, a new girl who isn’t afraid to speak her mind. To Marlee’s amazement, Liz decides to sit next to her at lunch and agrees to work with her on a school project. Liz and Marlee practice at the zoo and Marlee starts to confide in Liz.

But on the day of the big presentation, Liz is gone. When Marlee finds out that her friend was a black student posing for a white student, she decides she doesn’t care—she just wants her friend back. Unfortunately, no one else agrees with her. Her parents forbid Marlee to even call Liz.

This book reminds me of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. The girls come from two very different families—one black and one white. Romeo and Juliet also had two conflicting families who were in a feud. And just like Romeo and Juliet, Liz and Marlee sneak out without their parents’ permission because they need to be with each other. Betty Jean, Marlee’s maid, reminds me of Juliet’s nurse, because both are motherly figures.

With Liz gone, Marlee starts to change. She sneaks out to see Liz and becomes more outgoing. However, she starts to become a little careless. Red Dalton, the dangerous older brother of one of Marlee’s classmates, notices how Marlee is friends with Liz. He comes up with a horrible plan to get Liz and her family out of town. And only Marlee can stop him.

I love a good historical fiction novel, and this was definitely one of them. The only thing I would change about this book is that I think the plot would have been much more dramatic if Marlee discovered that Liz was black towards the end of the book. I’m sure anyone who reads this book will find it as fascinating and inspiring as I do.

The Lions of Little Rock Pamela Picerno

Pamela Picerno, 13
Metuchen, New Jersey

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