As The Lions of Little Rock opens, Marlee Nisbett is almost literally voiceless. She suffers from acute social anxiety and speaks only to her immediate family. When Liz, the new girl in town, begins to draw Marlee out of her comfort zone, Marlee’s awareness of the world slowly begins to expand. It is 1958 in Little Rock, AK, and the governor has closed the high schools rather than obey federal orders to integrate. Marlee’s family is split on the issue, and Marlee sees a lot but says very little. Then one day she arrives at school to find that Liz has vanished, amid rumors that she was a colored girl caught passing for white. Marlee, along with the rest of the city, is forced to decide whether to speak out for justice in the face of bigotry and intimidation, or to stay silent and look the other way.
Kristin Levine knows how to take a theme – finding one’s voice, in this case – and run with it. The power of speech is a thread that runs through the novel and serves to weave together the personal and the political. The plot is elegantly structured - beginning and ending with Marlee conquered by, and then conquering, her fear of heights. The extended metaphor of the zoo lions as the voice of courage and conscience is a powerful one, and allows the setting to thematically echo the plot. Characters, for the most part, are complex and well-drawn, and skillful pacing builds suspense as historical events unfold.
This is one to watch. Starred reviews in both School Library Journal and Kirkus.