The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine is another bright star in the cluster of historical fiction books for kids that centers on the Civil Rights movement in this country. This sub-genre has been an extremely popular setting in the publishing world for awhile now. Anyone who wanted to do a homeschooling unit on the Civil Rights movement would have no problem finding novels to supplement or instruct.
Though it's not my all time favorite historical period, (that being WWII) the 50s and 60s in our Southern states was another epic time of good versus evil, a time of great challenges and risks to the downtrodden and their champions, black or white.
The Lions of Little Rock is about shy, taciturn, twelve year old Marlee. She is the youngest of three children. Sixth grade is beginning, her oldest brother is going away to college and her best friend, and only confidant, her sister, Judy is starting high school. But then the city of Little Rock shuts down all of the high schools to stop de-segregation. Judy can take correspondence courses via broadcast lessons on the TV, but she gets sent to Pine Bluff to live with her grandmother and attend school there.
The author's note tells a lot about this "lost year" in Little Rock history where the public high schools remained closed all year. Marlee's parents are both teachers. Her father supports de-segregation, but her mother feels that the city (and perhaps she, herself) isn't ready yet. There's a lot of political maneuvering to get a private school open for white kids that's actually funded with the state's money. And Marlee's parents disagree about whether or not they should teach at the new school.
Marlee makes a new friend, Liz. Liz encourages Marlee to speak up more in class and convinces her to give half of their oral presentation for class. On presentation day however, Liz does not show up for class. She is actually black and has been "passing" as white to go to a better school. Once her secret was discovered, Liz can no longer attend the white school, and now that she attends the black school, she is shunned by her classmates and teachers.
Marlee and Liz, though forbidden, continue their friendship with secret phone calls and meeting at the Little Rock Zoo, which is across the street from Marlee's home. They are disobedient in doing so. Their actions have consequence, and both families are put in danger when the local bully, son of a Klansman, finds some old dynamite and plans to use it. There is an explosion, it is scary, but not too much for your average 4th or 5th grader.
Marlee becomes more brave in her home life, joining the Little Rock Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. She and her family, together with their friends from the black community, campaign very hard to elect new school board members, to re-instate all of the school employees who were terminated because of their pro-segregation stance (including Marlee's father) and to open Little Rock's high schools.
Historical, political, poignant, and dangerous, The Lions of Little Rock is a great story of that time. I can't give away any endings. It's worth noting that The Lions of Little Rock does an excellent job focusing on a little explored piece of history (Little Rock's lost year) and the way blacks and whites worked together to better society.
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith is another novel that addresses the subject of "passing." "Passing" is when a light-skinned black person would "pass" themselves off as white. In Flygirl, Ida Mae Jones "passes" to attend the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in 1941 Texas. Though Ida Mae Jones is already an accomplished pilot, having learned on her father's crop duster, the WASP program is Whites Only.
In Flygirl, I learned that "passing" involved severing all contact with your friends and family, lest you be discovered, while being very discreet in your new life. It was risky and lonely.
Another good title set in this time period is Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman, which I reviewed back in 2008,
Sources of Light by Margaret McMullan, is the tale of a girl and her recently widowed mother who move to Jackson, Mississippi in 1962 to be near her father's family. When her art history instructor mother gives a guest presentation at the black college, they invoke the ire of the local racists. I read this book a long time ago, and I remember that Sam's mother becomes romantically involved with a photo-journalist who ends up getting beaten to death after a voter registration drive. Could be too scary/violent for young or sensitive readers.
A Friendship for Today by Patricia C. McKissack is set in Missouri, 1954. Twelve year old Rosemary Patterson and her best friend J.J. are to be the first black students at their new school, since the Supreme Court closed the "colored" school. J.J. ends up hospitalized with polio, and Rosemary is bullied and friendless until her greatest enemy, Grace, the poor white trash girl from a racist family becomes her friend.
The Watson's Go to Birmingham-1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis combines humor with history. I love the scene is the beginning of the novel where nine year old Kenny's older brother, Byron, practices his kissing techniques on the family car's side view mirror. Unfortunately, kissing a mirror outside in winter in Flint, Michigan, means your lips get ripped off on the frozen glass.
When Byron starts hanging out with wrong crowd, his parents decide to relocate him to his grandmother's house in Birmingham, Alabama. While in Birmingham, Grandma's church is firebombed. The scenes which follow could be disturbing for sensitive readers, you can read detailed descriptions of them here.
I'm sure this list is far from complete, so feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments please.