In keeping with my serendipitous approach to discovering books, I found Kristin Levine’s book, The Lions of Little Rock, in the Little Free Library down the street. I read a fair number of books that I enjoy as a reader, but this one also filled me with admiration as a writer.
The Lions of Little Rock is historical fiction aimed at adolescent readers. It covers the historical moment in the year after Little Rock’s schools were desegregated, under the blaze of publicity and the eye of the nation. The subsequent year was quieter but no less fraught with conflict for the residents of Little Rock, black and white, and no less perilous, either.
The book is the story of an unusual and difficult friendship between a shy white girl and an outgoing black girl, who befriends her. Their friendship unfolds in a context of racism and violence, and while the connection between the two girls is sweet, the events in the wider world are not. Levine doesn’t ignore or sugarcoat the historical record, even though she’s writing about the kind of dangerous and fearful things that many people would consider inappropriate for children to read.
I won’t give away the details of the story—I recommend that anyone who cares about racial justice and overcoming prejudice read the book—but I can say that I read this book with a lump in my throat. Sentiment is out of fashion in grown-up literature in this century, but thankfully kids’ books get a pass. I felt like I needed a hankie at the end of the story, in the best possible way.
As a writer of historical fiction, I was full of admiration for Levine’s deft touch. It isn’t easy to write a story that’s historically true, both in its details and in its atmosphere, and she has done it. And it’s even harder to write in a pitch-perfect adolescent voice, and she’s done that as well. I write for adults, but there are elements in Levine’s writing that inspire me. I hope that my books do as well in reaching readers across the historical divide, and in making them smile and sniffle at the same time.