I just had the pleasure of reading Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock — due out in just a few days on January 5! It’s my kind of book, dealing with that gut wrenching issue of intolerance (not to mention ignorance) in the form of racism. Her book is about the lost school year suffered by African American students in Little Rock, Arkansas, where schools were closed to prevent integration. Kristin and I are both Virginia authors who were shocked / embarrassed to learn of our state’s role in school segregation, choosing to close schools rather than integrate. Here’s a tribute to the brave African American children of Charlottesville, Virginia, known as The Charlottesville Twelve, who entered all-white schools after years of the school board’s trying to stop them:
And even though these stories are from over 50 years ago, one has to wonder, how far have we come?
Now, let’s get to know Kristin a little better and find out the story behind The Lions of Little Rock.
Why did you write this book / choose this topic?
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.
Why do you write for young people?
I write for young people because I remember how much books meant to me when I was eleven years old and in 5th grade. I was having a hard year, not sure exactly why – changing friends, puberty, feeling like I didn’t fit in – but I could always escape and relax in a book. At one point I read Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain books (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. When the cutest, most popular boy in school came up to me and asked to borrow the first book in the series, I thought to myself, Wow! Maybe it really is true, that if you are passionate enough about something, and not apologetic about it, eventually other people will begin to find it interesting too.
So I guess when I think of books, I view them as being both comforting and empowering. And I think young people need that the most since they have to go to school and do homework and have so little control over other things in their lives.
When do you write?
I used to like to write in the morning, usually from 9 AM to 12 noon when I was fresh and well-rested. But then I had kids. Now finding time to write is probably my biggest challenge – but on the plus side, I rarely get writer’s block because I’m just so happy whenever I do have time. I’ve had to learn to write whenever I have a spare moment – naptime, afternoon, waiting for preschool pickup, sometimes even at night. I’ve also learned to use small chunks of time. Even fifteen minutes is long enough to write a couple of paragraphs. So in a strange way, having less time has made me a better and more efficient writer.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing since I was about thirteen. It’s funny because when I was in elementary school I hated writing. It was just too hard, I could never come up with good ideas, my writing never turned out how I wanted, and to top it all off, I was a bad speller.
But then the summer after 7th grade I attended a program run by John Hopkins University called CTY (Center for Talented Youth.) At CTY, students get a chance to live on a college campus for three weeks, take a class, live in the dorms, eat in the cafeteria and basically pretend they are college students. I decided to take a writing class because I hoped it would help me not dread writing assignments so much.
What I discovered at CTY was that I was good at writing. In fact, I really enjoyed it. From the writing workshop I took there, I learned that writing is not about getting it right the first time. It’s about revising and making things better as you go along. When you’re writing, your first draft can be absolutely horrible; all that counts is your final draft. I realized that I enjoy revising, and I am stubborn enough to keep at it, working and rewriting and changing things, until I feel like I’ve gotten it right.
After that experience at CTY, I loved writing and wrote a lot. Even though my first drafts are still terrible. And I still can’t spell.
Tea or coffee? Flavor? Milk or sugar?
Earl Grey tea with rice milk.
Summer – warm weather, long days, lots of light, everyone home from school.
What’s always in your fridge?
Food you’d rather starve than eat.
Jello – it looks so pretty I always think I’ll like it, but I just hate the way it squishes between my teeth.
Skill you’d most like to acquire.
Getting everyone out of the house in the morning with no stress and on time.
When I was 18: standing room at the opera in Vienna, Austria, coffee and cake at a coffeehouse afterwards, trip home on the streetcar. (I was an au pair for a year before college.)
Now: kids go to sleep early, no emails in inbox, Netflix with hubby on couch, Sudoku or couple of chapters of a good book before bed.
I hear you, Kristin! Plus, getting recharged so you can write again in the morning … what’s not to love? Thanks for stopping by and thanks for writing this important book about Marlee finding her voice, along with those in her family and town. It’s encouraging to know that we can make a difference, at any age, even if current problems are bigger than all of us and may not be solved for years to come.
To learn more about Kristin (who also wrote The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had) please visit her website, and to buy her book, please visit a bookstore!