82 pages 2 hours read

Kristin Levine

The Lions Of Little Rock

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


The Lions of Little Rock (2012) is the second novel by juvenile fiction author Kristin Levine. Other titles she has written include The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had (2009), Paper Cowboy (2014), and The Jigsaw Jungle (2018).

The book is suitable for readers aged 10 to 13 and is categorized as Children’s American Historical Fiction, Children’s Prejudice and Racism Books, and Children’s Friendships.

The author felt compelled to tell this story because her mother was a Little Rock native and grew up during the era of school desegregation. While history books cover the story of the first nine “colored students” (the colloquial description of the time) to attend white schools in Little Rock in 1957, the governor’s school boycott of the following year and citizen’s attempts to fight it receive little attention. The Lions of Little Rock covers this little-known piece of American history.

The novel takes place in Little Rock, Arkansas, just as the school year is beginning in the fall of 1958. The events it describes take place over the course of a year until the fall of 1959. The author uses a mildly serious tone though some lighthearted episodes are interwoven with the darker issues of racism and intolerance. The story is told from the first-person perspective of twelve-year-old Marlee Nisbett as she struggles to find her voice and hold onto a valuable friendship.

The Lions of Little Rock tells the story of the unlikely rapport that springs up between a “colored girl” and a white girl at a time in American history when segregation was the law of the land in southern states. The two girls struggle to maintain their ties as their community struggles with the issue of integrating the educational system against strong opposition from the state government and the Ku Klux Klan. Against the backdrop of a community in crisis, the novel explores the themes of entrenched racism, the importance of speaking out, and the value of transformative relationships.

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Marlee Nisbett lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1958. She is so pathologically shy that she can barely summon the courage to speak to her classmates at school. This all changes when she meets new student, Liz Fullerton. Liz has all the assurance that Marlee lacks and succeeds in breaking Marlee out of her shell. Right before the two girls are scheduled to give a class presentation together, Liz disappears from school. Rumors spread that she is a colored girl who has been passing for white.

Marlee refuses to give up on the friendship even though racial mixing in the South is actively discouraged by bigots who make threatening phone calls, send hate letters, or even attack colored families. Marlee’s struggle to maintain her relationship with Liz is paralleled by the city-wide controversy over allowing colored students to attend all-white high schools. The governor has shut down the schools in defiance of federal legislation mandating integration.

In making a concerted effort to keep the friendship alive, Marlee finds her voice and helps her parents find theirs. The family unites and rallies their friends to help elect a new school board that will allow all Little Rock students to get an opportunity to receive equal educational opportunities. Marlee also finds a way to expand her circle of friends and maintain her connection with Liz despite the turbulent racial climate that continues in their community.

All page number citations are taken from the Kindle edition of this book.