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The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine
300 p. G.P. Putnam's Sons/ Penguin Young Reader's Group, January, 2012. 978-0-399-25644-8. (arc received from publisher)

In September, 1958, the governor of Arkansas responded to the attempted integration of Little Rock Schools by the "Little Rock NIne" the previous year, by closing all the high schools. This means that twelve-year-old Marlee Nisbett's older sister, Judy, has to stay home. So does her mother, who teaches at a high school. Marlee is unaffected and shows up to start seventh grade at her middle school. She's a math whiz, has a bit of crush on JT, and is sort of friends with Sally even though Sally's a bit self-centered and mean. Marlee is painfully shy to the point of being selectively mute. This year, there's a new girl and her name is Liz and, she's not cowed by Sally. Marlee is intrigued. When Liz shows interest in partnering with Marlee, she's tempted, especially since, in the past, she has always partnered with Sally and done all the work. A tentative friendship is struck and Liz begins to help Marlee speak up.

Then, Liz suddenly disappears from school, rumors swirl that she was caught "passing" as white, all Marlee knows is that she lost her new best friend. Against the advice of her parents, she meets with Liz and convinces her that they can maintain their friendship even though Liz's parents have also forbade Liz to continue contact with Marlee. But Marlee is emerging from her cocoon and there's no stopping her. She likes Liz. Even though she hasn't spent much time thinking on the issue of integration and despite the fact that both parents fall on either side of the issue, Marlee joins a group of women who are working to reopen the schools and gradually forms her own opinions on the issue of integration.

Historical fiction is usually a hard sell with my students. But I will try hard with this gem. It might start out a bit slow (for them, I was entranced), but the author patiently sets up circumstances that quickly tighten like a vise as Marlee's tolerant choices put her in mortal danger. I had to remind myself to breath through the last part of the book. About midway through, I flipped the book closed to remind myself of whom the author was, read "author of The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had." Oh-h! Of course! It took me a while to discover that one, but there was something very reminiscent of it in The Lions of Little Rock.

Recently, my husband asked me if I'd ever heard a lion roar, then he commented on how very loud that roar really is. I thought of that conversation as I read The Lions of Little Rock and how surprised I was to learn that Marlee found comfort in the sound of the lions roaring in the nearby zoo. 

With three starred reviews, this is getting some Newbery buzz and deservedly so. It's on my shortlist.