Marlee is 12 years old, almost 13. She is afraid of heights, yet finds herself on the high diving board at the pool, too afraid to jump. It seems like Marlee is afraid of a lot these days, especially speaking to people. She is so quiet that some of the mean kids call her “mute”. Her big sister Judy helps her down off the board, but her confidence and ego is hurt. Marlee likes to compare people to types of drinks. Judy is a cold cola, her brother David is a sweet glass of iced tea, and her “friend” Sally is like cough syrup. Marlee also counts prime numbers in her head when she’s nervous, which is quite often. The sounds of the lions roaring at the nearby zoo comfort Marlee, and she feels she can relate to the animals in many ways.
When school starts up a few days later, Judy’s high school stays closed; the Governor has shut down Central High School because he doesn’t want any Black students to enter. Marlee’s father drives her to school, and at lunch, a new girl named Liz sits with her. Marlee would rather be alone, but she sees that Liz is friendly and funny, and isn’t afraid of being the new kid. On the second day of school, JT, the cute boy who Marlee secretly has a crush on, asks Marlee to help her with his math homework. The next morning before school, JT’s brother Red drops him off and laughs at the fact that his brother is being tutored by the mute girl. It turns out JT didn’t want her help at all; he wanted her to do his homework for him. Marlee didn’t know how to say no, so she agreed.
When Liz and Marlee decide to work on a project together, they spend more time together and become friends. Liz agrees to give Marlee a really cool book about magic squares, but only if she presents half of the project in front of the class. Although this is terrifying for Marlee, she reluctantly agrees. Meanwhile, Marlee notices that her parents are arguing a lot more; they are stressed out about the schools not reopening, and have differing opinions about Black children being allowed in the schools. In fact, it seems the whole town of Little Rock is up in arms over it, as it’s been a year since The Little Rock Nine tried to go to Central High School, and Governor Faubus had armed guards waiting to keep them out. Marlee couldn’t understand all of the fuss; who cares about the color of their skin? How could people prefer to close the schools instead of integrating?
When the day of the presentation arrives, Liz does not show up. Marlee is confused and upset, but decides to put on a brave face and deliver the entire presentation by herself. She is shocked and proud that she did it. Word around the school is that Liz is not sick, but that she is a light skinned Black girl who was trying to pass as white; she was discovered and that is why she isn’t returning. Marlee feels hurt and sad that Liz lied to her. Just when she thought things couldn’t get any worse, Marlee’s parents tell the girls that Judy will be going to stay with her grandmother in Pine Bluff; schools are open there and Judy needs to get back to her studies. The girls are devastated, and Marlee realizes that now she is totally alone. Marlee decides to sneak Liz a note. She goes to the Baptist Church, where her maid Betty Jean’s husband is the pastor. She asks Pastor George to get the note to Liz, saying to meet up by the lions at the zoo on Friday.
The girls meet up and talk about what happened; they know that they cannot see each other in public because it is too dangerous. They give each other fake names so they can call each other, and decide that it’s best to meet at “the rock crusher”, a place in the woods nearby, instead of at the zoo from now on. That Sunday after Sunday School, Marlee learns about a group called the WEC (Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools) from her Sunday School teacher, Miss Winthrop. When her mother refuses to join, Marlee tells Miss Winthrop that she would like to. She had to do something to help.
Halloween arrives, and the girls are excited because they can be together without worrying; costumes and masks hide who they are. The girls come upon JT, Red, and some of his buddies egging an old lady’s house. When Liz yells at them to stop, JT recognizes her voice and she runs off. Red threatens Marlee, saying that if she says a word about the egging, he will come after her and Liz. The next day, Betty Jean’s son, Curtis, is blamed for egging Mrs. Jefferson’s house and is arrested. Marlee immediately calls her father, and he goes to pick up Curtis. It is clear that Curtis was blamed because of the color of his skin. Marlee’s dad tells her about Emmitt Till, the young boy who was murdered a few years ago by white men. Marlee is shocked and saddened about this and about all that is happening around her. She is excited to help the WEC get new people to run for the school board, in hopes to reopen the schools for everyone. That evening, Marlee receives her first threatening phone call.
As time goes on, Marlee spends more time with Liz at the rock crusher, and then comes home to chat with Betty Jean. Betty Jean teaches her all about the NAACP, and Marlee is even more motivated to help make changes. Christmas comes and goes, and the family rides on an airplane for the first time. Marlee is surprised to realize that she loves it! Marlee turns 13 on January 27, and her mom gives her an engraved letter opener. Marlee contracts the measles and is sick for a long time, missing almost a whole month of school. When she returns, she tells JT that she will no longer help him with his math homework. She feels good about standing up for herself, but when her mother makes plans with JT’s mother for them to go to Sally’s party together, Marlee is upset all over again. At Sally’s party, JT shows how very racist he is by saying all kinds of things about Liz and Black people. Marlee calls her mother to come pick her up, not wanting to get into Red’s car with JT again.
Easter comes and goes, and on a beautiful Tuesday in May, Marlee and Liz are hanging out in a tree at the rock crusher. When Marlee gets down to get some apples out of her satchel, Red and JT arrive. They had followed her, not knowing that Liz was up in the tree. When JT throws Marlee’s bag into the woods, she trips over a box of dynamite while retrieving it. Red takes Marlee’s satchel and puts the dynamite inside. He tells Marlee that he will find out where Liz lives and show her and her family what he thinks of Black people who try to pass as white. Marlee and Liz both get home safe, and Marlee tells Betty Jean everything. The police are now involved, but when they search Red’s house, there is no dynamite to be found.
About a week later, Marlee heads to the zoo to think and enjoy the animals. She sees Red with his buddy, throwing rocks at the lions and drinking beers. Liz shows up unexpectedly, and they decide to take Red’s keys to see if the dynamite is in the trunk of his car while Red isn’t looking. They were right, the dynamite was in the trunk! They hurry to grab it all and when they hear Red coming, Marlee tells Liz to run and she reaches in the trunk to grab the last two sticks. The trunk closes and she is locked in. When the boys return to the car and find the key, they drive off, not knowing that Marlee is in the trunk. When they finally stop to go fishing, Marlee uses her letter opener to pick the lock and is able to open the trunk and run away. She finds a farm house nearby, and the kind woman lets her call her Liz, and then her brother David to pick her up. Liz brought the dynamite to a police station, but there were still two more sticks in the trunk of Red’s car.
On Sunday, May 29, Marlee and her mother stop by Betty Jeans to drop off some paperwork for the petition to get new school board members elected. Marlee is happy to see Liz there, hanging out with Curtis. When Marlee sees what looks like Red’s car go by the house several times, she becomes very concerned; she knows Red is out to find Liz, and she knows he still has two sticks of dynamite. Marlee hurries everyone away from the front of the house, and moments later a brick comes flying through the window. Next comes an explosion in the living room. When the police arrive Marlee tells them everything.
As time goes on, things start to change. There are new school board members, Red is sent to the Army, and Liz and Marlee need to keep their distance from one another for the time being. JT and Marlee start to become friends, Judy comes home, and the schools are scheduled to open in the fall, with a small number of Black students attending. Marlee knows this is a small step, but it’s a step in the right direction. During her last trip to the pool before the summer ends, Marlee jumps off of the high diving board. What a difference a year makes.
The Lions of Little Rock is a story of courage and friendship. It is a story about the true injustices that took place during a very hard time in American history. Marlee and Liz are characters that children can relate to and will love from the very beginning. It is a story of growth, change, and standing up for what is right, no matter what.