Congratulations to the winner of our first annual Children’s History Book Prize, Kristin Levine! Last year we dug into middle-reader history books from 2012 – both non-fiction and fiction. The DiMenna Children’s History Museum staff read dozens and dozens of terrific books, and then we shared four finalists with our book prize jury. This jury was made up historians, librarians, educators, and families from our Reading into History book club. It was important to us to have kids on the jury who were middle readers themselves! Through our conversation a winner emerged, and we were thrilled to award Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock the prize.
The Lions of Little Rock, Kristin Levine’s second book, tells the story of two 12-year-old girls—one black and one white—who form an unbreakable bond during the tumultuous integration of Little Rock schools in 1958, and face dangers their friendship could bring to both their families. The girls attend a junior high school in the same district as the Little Rock Nine—a group of African-American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957, who were initially prevented from entering the racially-segregated school by the Governor of Arkansas. They were able to attend only after President Eisenhower intervened.
Kristin Levine will join us June 1 for our Reading into History book club, and in the meanwhile we asked her questions about her inspiration for the book, the time period, and about her own favorite books.
What made you want to write The Lions of Little Rock?
When I was in elementary school in the early 1980s, my mainly white neighborhood was paired with a mainly black neighborhood to create two integrated elementary schools, one for grades K-3 and the other for grades 4-6. When I asked my parents why I had to ride the bus to school, instead of just going to the school nearest my house, they told me it was a great opportunity for me to go to school with people who were different from me, by race, social class, religion, etc. They said it was only fair that the busing be shared by both neighborhoods. Their enthusiasm for the pairing of our schools made a huge impression on me.
Because of my personal experience with integration, 1957-1958 Little Rock and the integration of Central High School by the Little Rock Nine seemed like an obvious choice of time and place for my second book. But when I went to Little Rock to do some interviews, I was fascinated by people’s descriptions of 1958-1959, the “lost year,” when public high schools in the city were closed to prevent integration. I was shocked to discover that this had happened in my home state of Virginia as well. Eventually, I decided that rather than revisit the events of 1957-1958 (which have already been written about by those who were there) I would turn my attention to what happened in Little Rock the year after Central High School was integrated.
Can you share a primary source – a photograph or newspaper clipping, etc – that was helpful to you in understanding of the time and place Marlee and Liz live in?
The films of Sandra Hubbard (The Lost Year: The Untold Story of the Year Following the Crisis at Central High School and The Giants Wore White Gloves: The Women’s Emergency Committee to Open our Schools) were really instrumental in giving me a flavor of the era. Warriors Don’t Cry, Melba Pattillo Beals’ account of integrating Central High School, was also a major influence. Finally, I always thought this picture was so interesting. From the boys giving to the thumbs down, to the fact that the sign is really misleading (the federal government was ordering the schools to integrate, not close) to the misspelling of “government,” I felt that this photo really illustrates how history is complicated and full of complex and interesting people.
I’m not sure I have a favorite time period. I love to learn my history through the eyes of individual people, rather than memorize dates and events. In high school, I do remember being fascinated with Ken Burns’ Civil War series because I felt it did a great job of making huge, sweeping events, feel intimate, personal and relevant.
What were you like between the ages of 9 and 12?
Books were HUGELY importantly to be between the ages of 9 and 12. Here’s an example:
When I was eleven years old and in 5th grade, I was having a hard year. I’m not sure exactly why – changing friends, puberty, feeling like I didn’t fit in, etc. At one point during that year I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King) and I loved them so much, I started carrying around all five of them in a bag with me at all times, just in case I wanted to read part of them again.
It sounds like this would have caused me to be even weirder and more isolated, but it actually had the opposite effect. I started loaning out my books, and pretty soon, everyone in the 5th grade was reading them. Eventually, even the cutest, most popular boy in school came up to me and asked to borrow the first book in the series! So those books have always maintained a special place in my heart.
What were some of your favorite books to read at that age?
In addition to Lloyd Alexander, I also loved Robin McKinkey’s books The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword. As a child I also enjoyed books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. In 9th grade I loved long, historical novels like Shogan by James Clavell. More recently, The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis is one of my all-time favorites.
Families, read The Lions of Little Rock and join us for Reading into History book club with Kristin on Sunday, June 1!
The Reading into History family book club is supported by a grant from the New York Council for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this blog post and/or in Reading into History programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.