Leah Johnson Didn’t See Herself in YA Novels, so She Wrote Her Own


Leah Johnson’s debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, is about Liz Lighty, a queer black girl from Indiana who has always believed she was too poor and too awkward to make a mark in her small, rich town. Since the college financial aid money she depended on fell through, her only option is to run for prom queen, which has a scholarship attached. But along the way, Liz falls for the competition. 

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, Hardcover | Barnes ...

You Should See Me in a Crown shows queer black girls that they deserve joy. It is honest about systems that need to be dismantled but shows how magic can still happen despite. I read You Should See Me in a Crown and remembered what it was like to grow up in a mostly-white town. I rejoiced in the fact that there’s a love story here, and at the end, the black girl wins. 

Leah Johnson is a writer, editor, and graduate of Indiana University and Sarah Lawrence College, where she received her MFA in fiction writing and currently teaches in the undergraduate writing program. And she won’t let you forget that she’s a Midwesterner, hailing straight from Indiana. 

I talked to my friend Leah Johnson about making space for black girl joy, how familial love is just as important as romantic love, and the concept of breaking tradition when it was never created to benefit you.

Editor’s Note: Leah Johnson was formerly a social media editor for Electric Literature.

Arriel Vinson: You Should See Me in a Crown begins with a James Baldwin epigraph, “The place in which I’ll fit will not exist until I make it.” How did you land on this quote?

Leah Johnson: I read this quote when I was studying Black literature in undergrad, and it’s one of those lines I just wasn’t able to shake, you know what I mean? I was young, away from home for the first time, and learning how to take ownership of all of my identities—so it burrowed deep for no other reason than its resonance for me in that moment. That period of my life was the first where I began to conceptualize the sheer magnitude of all the systems working to—quite literally—kill the people that I loved. So I spent a lot of time thinking about ways to dismantle those systems, and what it would look like to build something in their stead that was more ethical, more equitable, more just than what we had. Than what we have.

How can I begin to write over all of the stories that told me I didn’t deserve to take up space? That said girls like me weren’t worthy of fairytale endings?

When I sat down to write Crown years later, it was in that same vein. How can I begin to write over all of the stories that told me I didn’t deserve to take up space? That said girls like me weren’t worthy of fairytale endings? How can I make within these pages a space that tells young black girls that they are loved, and that they fit, if nowhere else, then inside of their own bodies? I’ve said all of that to say, I was writing back to the girl I was when I first discovered that quote while also trying to pay homage to the queer black writers who opened the door for me to do that work.

AV: From the beginning, readers realize Liz has trouble believing in and making space for herself as a queer black girl. Tell me more about this. 

LJ: You know what? It’s funny, since I’ve been quarantining at my parents’ house, I’ve gone back to the books I read when I was in high school and whew chile. Let me tell you, that’s been a journey. So many of the books I read when I was growing up were riddled with anti-blackness— and not just implied anti-blackness, either! I mean characters fully saying things along the lines of: Ew I would never date someone who looks/acts/speaks in ways that are coded as black. I was consuming so many of these narratives about who deserves good, beautiful things, and none of those narratives included girls like me. And it took me a long time to untangle all of that.

Liz Lighty is growing up in a town that is very small, very white, and very wealthy—all things Liz herself is not. She’s constantly surrounded by people reminding her, whether implicitly or explicitly, that they don’t believe she’s worthy of the same freedoms and privileges that they have. So she’s internalized shame, she’s espoused silence with survival, and she’s made herself small as a means of navigating her community. When you view your blackness as exclusive to how it relates to whiteness, your understanding of self is not only flawed but incomplete, you know what I mean? So I knew all of that needed to be part of Liz’s arc: shattering these expectations of the Good Minority, learning to take up space, figuring out what it means to enter every room as a whole person—all of that.

AV: Prom, of course, is a huge deal for Campbell County HS and the main event of the novel. It’s supposed to be a magical thing, but it’s also the cause of a lot of humiliation for Liz. How did the idea to make prom both a source of joy and pain come about? 

It shouldn’t be radical that a black, queer girl could be a prom queen in 2020, but it’s still practically unheard of.

LJ: I think it’s important to note here that prom eventually becomes a thing of celebration for Liz, but it couldn’t be that way at the beginning just by virtue of the way the community was constructed. It becomes something magical for her, but only once she starts making it her own. That’s at the heart of the novel, I think, and also returns to your first question about the epigraph. Black folks, queer folks, black queer folks are constantly building tables of our own (and rebuilding them once white people attempt to co-opt them) because we’ve never been offered seats at America’s. Rebirth and reinvention are in our nature.

But none of that can exist without resistance, which brings with it its own set of conflicts. So in taking this very American institution of prom—something that, at its core, is extremely white and heteronormative—and making an out-and-proud black girl with big hair its new face, I had to write through that duality. Which is awkward, and uncomfortable, and downright painful at times. I mean, it shouldn’t be radical that a black, queer girl could win a prom queen title in 2020, but in more small towns across this country than I could count, it’s still practically unheard of. So if Liz was gonna pave the way, I wanted her to do it in a way that felt honest, but also, like, super gay.

AV: You’ve mentioned that you came out as you were writing this novel. And for Liz, her family and friends are extremely supportive, which I know isn’t always the case. How did your coming out affect the way you wrote You Should See Me in a Crown?

LJ: This book forced me to hold up a mirror to myself in a lot of ways that I wasn’t expecting. I had to confront a lot of fear and shame that I had tied up in what it means to be queer and—though this doesn’t make it into the book—Christian. My coming out was such a deeply cathartic experience because I had always anticipated that the people in my life would reflect the shame I’d been holding onto back to me, but that wasn’t the case. That was purely projection. I was held with care, and love, and tenderness, and reminded that I’m not worth loving in spite of my queerness, but because of the whole of who I am. When I worked on the first draft of Crown, writing that type of love and acceptance for Liz was just wish fulfillment. I wanted so much for her to have the type of experience I feared I would never have. I’ve never in my life been happier to be proven wrong.

AV:  Despite all that’s at stake for Liz, she still has a swoon-worthy romance with Mack, the new girl who is also running for prom queen. What was it like writing a love story for a black girl learning about her queerness and learning how to stand in it fully? 

LJ: If there’s one vow I want to make now, at the beginning of what I hope is a long career in this business, is that in my books, black girls are going to always get two things: happy endings and storybook, sometimes-whirlwind, romances. So even if I one day write a Twilight Zone-esque, end-of-the-world, dystopian novel, just know there’s gonna be a black girl standing at the edge of the universe having a meet-cute so sweet it’ll rot your teeth. In my Tyra Banks voice: Give us real-world issues, but temper it with tenderness.

It’s important to me that stories about black girls get to have space for that joy. Liz isn’t out here trying to win the Nobel for race relations and gay rights, you know what I mean? She just wants to be black and visibly queer in public without fear of being on the recieving end of some sort of violence. Black women, so often are held to unreasonable expectations of strength and stoicism and sexlessness, so in this book, I wanted to relieve Liz of all that. And by extension, myself.

There’s a scene—and I don’t want to spoil anything—but there’s a scene where Liz is finally given permission to just be a kid who worries about dances and girlfriends and best friend drama, and it’s this massive relief to her. She’s been holding onto all of this tension and fear for most of the book, and she finally gets to let it go. And I didn’t realize how badly I needed that until I wrote it. Sometimes, as a teenager, I just needed someone to say, “Hey, this isn’t yours to carry on your own anymore. I’ve got you. I’ve always had you.” 

AV: You Should See Me in a Crown does a great job of interrogating class and race. Liz is from a poor, black family, works part-time, and needs scholarship money to attend her dream school. What made you critique class structures, and why do you think that’s necessary work in a YA novel?  

LJ: Writing for young people is a job I take really seriously, because it’s about more than books. More than any other genre or marketing category, it’s the job of the YA novel, I think, to help shape young people into more equitable, honest, empathetic humans. So I never want to write down to teenage readers—they deserve more from me than that. They deserve someone who is going to tell them the truth.

Black women are often held to unreasonable expectations of strength, stoicism, and sexlessness. So I wanted to relieve my character of all that.

You know this, because I won’t shut up about it, but I talk a lot about the idea of “clean” YA—books that are supposed to uphold this mythical idea of purity and homogeneity—and what kinds of kids get excluded from those types of stories. And the thing that always stuns me about that distinction is that it obfuscates the experiences of a lot of the teenagers I teach now, and the type of teenager I was. Young people aren’t separate from dealing with issues we usually code as adult.

Teenagers wrestle with finances, with caring for their families, with keeping their heads above water—all while not being given the same agency as adults to work through those things, and often without having the language to talk about what they’re experiencing. So if fiction is the place I went as a teenager to have my experiences reflected back to me, or to make me feel less alone, then it should speak directly to the world that we live in—every messy, complicated, flawed bit of it. 

AV: I love the relationships present in the novel — familial relationships, friendships, etc. Why are these relationships so important in You Should See Me in a Crown, and arguably as important as her romantic relationship? 

LJ: Thank you for saying that. I know you’re my friend, so you know how important making non-romantic love a core aspect of my novels is to me, but I still appreciate the question. 

My families fuel so much of my work, you know, blood and otherwise, that I’m not sure I know how to write a story that isn’t constantly circling around themes of familial ties and obligation and deep, unconditional love. Liz’s sense of duty to her family emerged really early in the drafting process for me because that’s what I know. Most of my life has been spent making decisions that, hopefully, move the people that got me here towards a safer, more comfortable future. At the heart of my spiritual practice is this idea of reciprocity: because goodness has been given to me, it’s my duty to give that goodness back in the ways that I can.

Platonic relationships—more than any romance I’ve ever had—taught me how to love. How to be a decent human. Being in community is what sustains me, spiritually and creatively. So, in all of my work I try to speak to that, whether that person you love loves you back in the end, the people who were there for you before the relationship will be there for you after. But then again, my friend Cody once said to me, “What are we if not a little in love with all our friends?” So maybe it’s all tied up in a messy knot of affections in the end anyway.

AV: You said, in a video for Scholastic, that You Should Me in a Crown is the kind of novel you needed as a 15-year-old black girl. Tell me more about that.

LJ: A few years ago, Electric Lit published an essay of mine about the lack of diversity in YA, and that essay is what opened the door for me to eventually publish You Should See Me in a Crown. I’d spent a lot of time looking back at the books I read when I was a kid, a lot of time thinking about what was missing from them, and knew that all I wanted to do was write into those empty spaces. And I’m really fortunate in that I ended up with an agent and an editor and publisher who all saw the vision and have worked incredibly hard to cultivate a book that speaks to all of those things.

In the time since I wrote that essay, YA’s come a long way. We’re in a really exciting time of redefining the canon of young adult fiction. There are more queer books and books led by POC main characters on shelves right now than ever before. But it’s still not enough. You can look at the Lee and Low breakdown or the We Need Diverse Books stats at the end of the year and they’ll tell you as much. And it’s not that we haven’t been out here doing The Work. It’s not that we haven’t always been writing and pitching and hustling and submitting. It’s that we’re just now being given the space. 

That’s more than you asked probably, but I said all that to say: while You Should See Me in a Crown is the book I wish I’d had when I was fifteen, I can’t wait until every black girl has their unique experience captured within the pages of a book. I can’t wait until there are too many of us out here publishing those stories to name. 

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