Leah Johnson's debut novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, brings a fresh perspective and a lot of fun to a story that asks good questions about representation and the status quo. You Should See Me in a Crown is also the very first young adult selection chosen for Reese Witherspoon's book club.
I had a chance to chat with Johnson on the phone recently, to talk about her book, being the inaugural YA pick for such a high profile book club, and more. You can listen to the entire interview on the Amazon Book Review podcast, but here are a few excerpts from it.
Seira Wilson, Amazon Book Review: I love your book, You Should See Me in a Crown, and it's your first novel, which is so exciting! For listeners who haven't read your book yet do you have a little cocktail party synopsis for it?
Leah Johnson: You Should See Me in a Crown is about a girl named Liz Lighty whose only goal is to get out of her small and small-minded Midwestern hometown and go to college. But those plans were derailed when her financial aid falls through and she has to run for prom queen for the scholarship that's attached to the crown. That would be difficult enough for a wallflower like Liz, but it's made even more difficult when she begins to fall for her opposition.
How did you come up with all the great ideas for the prom court campaign that Liz goes through?
You know, one of the things that people ask me about frequently, or comment on frequently, is the absurdity of these traditions. And one of the things that I always try to point out is, prom is inherently absurd. It's really heteronormative, very classist and it is a uniquely American tradition.
Other parts of the world, the UK in particular, have adopted it in their own way in the past couple of years—but largely, this is just a thing that we do and it's wild when you really think about it.
When I was envisioning the fanfare that led up to prom, and the chaos of the [prom] campaign season, I wanted to ground it in things that really happen. So, for almost everything that you see in the book, these are traditions that exist in different high schools across America. I turned them up to 11, obviously, to give it some more comedic effect and really shine a light on how strange it all seems.
But largely, these are real things that real people do in real schools. And I thought that opened up a really interesting window into a conversation on who prom is for and what it represents and who prom fails.
In the book, prom is so important in this moment—when you think about about your experiences as a teenager, what advice would you most want to give yourself, if you could?
I wish I knew then that everybody, even the people who you most admire, even the people who look like they have it the most together, are just as scared as you are. In writing this book I've had the privilege of engaging differently with some people that I went to high school with, who have found themselves reflected in this narrative in different ways.
And to hear people who I looked up to in high school be like: "Yo, I was struggling with my queerness then to." I had no idea these seniors, who, when you're a sophomore and freshman are behemoths, larger than life—to talk to people who are two years, three years, ahead of me now—knowing that even they were just putting on their brave face when they came to school and then falling apart when they got home.
I would tell young me: you don't have to make that joke to beat somebody else to the punchline. Because everybody is struggling in the same exact way that you're struggling.
That's really interesting that you've connected with some of these people. Did they reach out to you through social media after your book was out, or how did that happen?
I'm extremely online and perhaps too available. I get to talk to a lot of people who I haven't spoken to in a long time who have been kind enough to seek out the book.
And the response has been overwhelmingly kind and positive, and not in that: "Oh, Leah, your book is so great" way, but "Hey Leah, I'm so glad you wrote about this place that we're from, in this way, because I needed somebody to put language to this experience that I had and I didn't have the tools to do that yet.” And so that's been really rewarding, really affirming.
Mack tells Liz that she has a rule about speaking up, no matter what. That sometimes good people also do terrible things and you still have to speak up about it. How does that fit into your life?
One of the things that I didn't necessarily understand growing up or didn't have the language to articulate, was that everyday acts of racism, microaggressions, are just as insidious as your larger instances of racism, the kind of racism that is elaborate and easy to spot.
Those things chip away at you in the same ways, even if you can't see it at the time. And sometimes those occurrences happen with people that you trust or people who are not consciously being racist. It's unconscious bias.
This isn't like they're flying Confederate flags and burning crosses in the front yard. These are people asking: Can I touch your hair? You're so pretty for a Black girl. You kind of talk white. Those are also moments of racism.
And I didn't understand that growing up. I thought that was just par for the course. I thought that's just what you had to deal with when you were Black and sounded a certain way, and dress a certain way, and listen to a certain type of music, or whatever the case may be.
And so I really tried to put a name to that in the book and illuminate the fact that that is an unnecessary side effect to growing up Black in a small town. We shouldn't have to wrestle with that, and maybe if we look more closely at the way we interact with our neighbors, then we can see the flaws in the way that we've behaved.
Liz comes into this as the underdog, but when the tide starts to turn she comes under new and sudden scrutiny—are you feeling the pressure of having your debut novel chosen as the first young adult Reese Witherspoon book club pick?
My non-media trained answer—but I'm going to try to answer like I'm media trained—is that its such a great honor to have been selected by Reese Witherspoon for this book club pick. I am so grateful for this opportunity and excited about seeing the book land in the hands of a lot of new readers. Those things are all true.
But, you're absolutely right. Underneath that, there is a great deal of anxiety for me. One: because I am, like Liz, deeply anxious. But also, when I started writing this book, the space that I was writing into was largely empty. And that's not to say that there are no other Black women writing stories about queer Black girls in YA, because there are, but the stories are still few and far between.
I know that my book is, for many people, the first time they will ever see this narrative. And hopefully not the last, but maybe the last, and so I do feel a great deal of responsibility to tell our stories honestly and to tell them in a way that feels real but also gives us space for grace and a happy ending. Us meaning Black queer women.
But I'm also working on my second novel. So that means now I'm like, okay, we did it for You Should See Me in a Crown. Let's see what we're going to do for the second one. How can we do this again and make it bigger, make it better, be even more honest, and articulate this thing in a more clear way, or complicate the narrative even further.
You know this, because you've worked with writers and have been around writing for a long time: publishing is not a meritocracy. It's not about how good somebody's book is. It's about how well the book sells. And so, even before the great fortune of being selected as the YA pick for Reese's Book Club, which is truly incredible, I thought really deeply about what it would mean if my book flopped. If nobody went out and bought my book. What is the likelihood that they will take on another book like this in the future?
Publishing is risk-averse so they don't want to take chances. But somebody at Scholastic took a chance on me, and thought this was worth publishing. And because of that, I had an opportunity to not just hold the door open, but rip the door off its hinges. And that's what I hope this book has done and that's what I hope that this book club pick has done.
I wanted to force publishers to acknowledge: for a long time you have marginalized, or further marginalized these stories and it's time we make space for them. Because they can sell, they are lucrative. I want to keep that same energy for the next book, I want to carry that forward. So that is stressful. But it's the kind of stress that I like having.
Author photo credit: Reece T. Williams
We talked to debut author Leah Johnson about prom, speaking up, and having her book chosen by Reese Witherspoon.