Why I liked it: The Lions of Little Rock is a tale about friendship set against the backdrop of a historical event, the desegregation of schools. The characters in this novel are complex; few are clearly for or against segregation and several change their stance as the novel progresses. The big twist in the novel, that Elizabeth is passing as white to attend Marlee's middle school, came as a surprise to me as much as it did to Marlee. Once this fact was revealed, a few hints clicked in my head, but I liked that this major event was not overly predictable. Just as the characters' views on desegregation were not simplistic, neither was Elizabeth's attempt at "passing." She feels backlash from both the black and white community in Little Rock. She can no longer attend Marlee's school after her secret is discovered, but she is scorned by her classmates at the black middle school for trying to better herself. Marlee and Elizabeth's friendship also becomes riskier once Elizabeth's true identity is known, but Marlee turns out to be fiercely loyal, and takes both foolish and extreme risks to hold onto her friendship and protect her friend. In the end, the two girls both grow and help each other change for the better.
Classroom application: While the author's note at the end of the book, reveals much of this, because the book is historical, you could have students research the time period and the events in Little Rock and act as fact checkers, identifying what is fact and what is fiction in the novel.
Possible nonfiction resources for comparison include The Little Rock Nine: A Primary Source Exploration of the Battle for School Integration (We Shall Overcome), A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School (a memoir), and Warriors Don't Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock's Central High.
The novel could also be used as a fiction pairing for a history unit on the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Other fiction titles on the topic include Little Rock Nine (Turning Points) (a graphic novel) and Fire from the Rock.
If you are interested in purchasing a copy of The Lions of Little Rock for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here.
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