In a debut as warm and welcoming to young, queer readers as it is open and truthful about what it means to be queer and Black in a small town, Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown is the high school prom story that readers deserve. Liz Lighty, a Black girl in her senior year of high school, has a plan: She’s going to land a music scholarship to her dream school, she’s going to become a doctor and study the disease that took her mother, and she’s going to make her younger brother and grandparents proud. When she doesn’t get the scholarship, she’s crushed and feels like her entire plan comes crashing down. But her brother has an idea: Lighty can enter their high school’s massive prom competition, which comes with a large cash prize and find a new way to pursue her goals at her dream school. Lighty is horrified by the idea.
Ever since her childhood best friend, Jordan, joined in while a group of boys mocked her hair for being too big and too curly, she’s learned to slip under the radar, slicking her hair into a low ponytail and never wearing anything too bright or noticeable. She’s made it her mission to be invisible. Now, she will have to do the opposite, and fight her various school nemeses for a chance to be in the spotlight—a chance at the prize that’ll offer her freedom and hope. Crown is, at its core, a book that offers hope. It’s a book full of love—platonic, romantic, and familial—and it’s a book for those of us who have found comfort hiding in the shadows but have yearned to break free and find somewhere where we can be more honest and whole.
We can find home in this book’s pages. Johnson and I discussed the origins of Crown, the pressure of representation and #OwnVoices, and writing mean girls that aren’t the antagonists of yore.
One of the things that stood out most to me was that this book has such a clear arc. Did you know from the beginning how you wanted the book to end?
I am not a plot girl. I sit down and let the story tell me what it wants to be. The first draft of Crown was not streamlined the way this version [is]: There was a lot of detouring into backstory and more conversation that [didn’t] move the story. From the beginning we knew the inciting incident had to happen in the first chapter. If this book is going to be about a girl who has to run for prom queen to win a scholarship, which was the premise from the moment I sat down to write the book, we [immediately] had to know the stakes. The entire story had to be in service of that urgency: understanding why Liz is in this predicament, why she’s so desperate to get out of the town, what happens if she isn’t able to get this money, and what she’s willing to give up [to get it].
I’m really fortunate that my editor is a literal genius. Every time I was like, “I think what we really need is a scene where they sit in a car for three hours and it’s 20 pages of exposition,” she’d say, “How about this: They sit in a car for one page, and you tell us what we need to know in one paragraph.” One of the first drafts was in the 90,000 word range, and we were able to [be] this [efficient] because my editor was religious about cutting out the extra noise at every turn.
I find that some novels with more than two characters can get muddled. How did you make sure that you developed clear personalities and voices for each of the characters? Even Liz’s grandfather, who is more of a minor character, felt so finished to me.
You know, my mom is not a huge reader anymore, and we all have ADD, which none of us [take medicine] for. When I think about character development, I [consider whether] my mom could follow it if she read it. I lean into the John Hughes philosophy—this is what I gleaned from his movies—where every character starts as a caricature, and we develop them from that. We have Stone, the woo-woo, astrology girl; we have Brit, the jock girl; we have Gabby, who is very Blair Waldorf; and we have Jordan, who is, at first, a himbo, but a himbo with some depth. I build from these cardboard cutout images and [from there] it’s easy to develop their voices. Like, Stone’s head is in the clouds, so everything she says has to [reinforce] that idea. That’s how I [try to] develop defined characters.
I loved that Rachel, “Racist Regina George,” is a mean girl whose meanness isn’t just based in jealousy or cattiness. She’s a straight up racist. It seems like so many novels are hesitant to call racists what they are and instead skirt around the issue. Why did you decide to challenge this?
I owe it to myself to be honest with readers, [especially ones] who might come to this from communities like the one I’m from. If they came to the page and I didn’t talk about racism the way it exists in small, midwestern towns, and if I didn’t talk about the mean girl who doesn’t just dislike you because you’re smarter than her but because you’re smarter than her and you’re Black, it would be dishonest. We’re not just [creating] better readers, we’re [creating] more empathetic humans who are more honest, and more equitable societies. And maybe that’s too [optimistic] of me to think, but I [believe] that work begins on the page for so many of us. If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in a way that’s truthful.
I was reading a review—which I try to not to do, mind you—of the book and someone said [Rachel was] a stereotypical mean girl that has no depth, and I was like, well first of all, it’s not her book, but second of all, what [often] happens with villains is that everyone wants a backstory about why they’re bad and why we should be understanding of that. But some people don’t have a villain origin story. Some people are raised improperly, and they’re not decent people. Nothing happened to Rachel that traumatized her [and caused her to] traumatize other people. No, Rachel is racist, just like people in my home town are racist. Their culture tells them white supremacy is the only way to maintain their power, so it’s their job to hold everyone down. When you’re raised in that culture, you’re evil. They deserve to be embarrassed and to have their crowns snatched by the gawky Black girl, and in my book that’s what will happen.
I’ve been seeing more YA books engaging with issues of class—Lindsay Sproul’s We Were Promised Spotlights and Kacen Callender’s Felix Ever After both place queer issues against class issues, showing the way that money can shape our abilities to be queer, comfortable, and safe. Money is the entire impetus behind Liz’s decision to dive into the prom competition.
When I was working on Crown, I focused both on the things I missed in YA when I was growing up and on the things I felt most acutely into my adulthood—a [sense of] isolation and alienness at the cross section of all of my identities. I feel uncomfortable with my queerness because of how that interacts with my Blackness; I feel uncomfortable because of the way it also interacts with my relative poverty. I didn’t come out until I was in grad school at Sarah Lawrence, which is one of the most expensive schools in the country. I was surrounded by wealth and all of these young queer people just moving around, out and proud. And I had to ask [myself], why are they so comfortable in their queerness? One reason was that these kids were rich.
They come from communities where [they had] money to see a therapist, to talk through [their] identity, and even in adulthood to go to somewhere like [Autostraddle’s] A-Camp and be surrounded by queer people. When I sat down to craft who Liz would become, it felt important to write directly into these intersections—I needed books like these as a teenager, but also when I was fully grown. Once again, [these intersections are] embedded into the plot. We had to talk about them in an honest way so that the end felt satisfying. We had to show what she overcame so that the end would feel unabashedly triumphant.
One of the strongest moments in the book, in my opinion, is when Jordan taps on Liz’s wrist to help her during a panic attack: “Jordan places two fingers on the inside of my wrist and holds it in place with his thumb on the outside. His grip is firm but gentle as he taps out the beat of my pulse with his foot.” It made me soften. There’s something so noteworthy and special about a Black girl being comforted and loved through a panic attack, instead of being expected to be strong and save other people.
I love Jordan so deeply, and I love him because he is flawed. We know Jordan fucked up bad at the beginning. Since Liz is so outward facing, and her goals are so outward facing, it was important for there to be one person, outside of her family, who is invested in Liz’s well-being—[someone] who could hold her up when she didn’t feel like she could [stand alone]. And it was important for that person to be Black. After the initial betrayal, Jordan doesn’t mess up. Other people around Liz are messing up, but Jordan is the one who’s at every turn trying to help her.
A standard in YA is that adults hardly play a role. If they do play a role, they’re sort of bumbling through things. But in this book, Liz’s grandparents (specifically her grandmother) act as continuously wise and comforting forces. Even Madame Simone calls out Principal Wilson for trying to stop queer people from openly participating in prom. Why was it important to create supportive adults, especially in a book about a queer teenager?
In my next book, Rise to the Sun, which comes out next year, there are no parents. It’s just teenagers at a music festival getting into trouble and falling in love. It’s so much easier when you don’t have to worry about grown folks stepping in and being concerned. But the thing about Crown, and why it was so important to have adults involved, is that people underestimate how much teenagers internalize and how much they take on. When I was heading to college, I knew my parents couldn’t afford to send me. I was in these streets hustling trying to make it happen. Even though I got into schools further away from home, I went to a state school where I knew I could get room and board paid for, and then I could go home when someone needed me. What I needed my mom to say sometimes was, “Leah, you don’t have to do this alone. We’ve got you.” It was important to me to give Liz someone who sits down and says, “Because I love you, I am taking this burden away from you.” There’s such freedom in that.
You Should See Me in a Crown also highlights the weight of representation. Early in the book when Liz gets in trouble for her “stunts,” Madame Simone tells her, “Did you know you have the chance to be the first black queen in Campbell history?”
I look at white writers, and I can’t imagine the freedom of not having the burden of representation. #PublishingPaidMe was especially illuminating. I’m very conscious of [the space] I’m writing into, and I know that space has largely been vacant before the past year. I looked into the numbers in 2018, and in the three years before 2018 there had only been one YA novel published, Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert, where the protagonist was a queer, Black girl. Not to be like, I’m at the vanguard or I’m some revolutionary trailblazer, but [every time I pitch an idea] I’m hyperaware of what it is I’m writing into. It’s not just me that depends on the success of this book. It’s every queer, Black woman who writes these books. If Crown flops, do you think another queer, Black author is going to get a chance?
The burden on Black authors, and on Black stories, [means that] not only do we have to hold ourselves to this impossible standard of excellence within the text, but [we also have to make sure] the characters on the page aren’t messy or making mistakes. If we can’t do it on the page, where can we do it? Of course I want Crown to sell really well. I would love to hit a list, I’d love to get some awards; every author wants those things. But it’s not my narcissism that drives that. It’s that the minute more books like mine perform well, more get to come out, more authors will get to experiment, and the books won’t have to be about characters like Liz Lighty, who is without flaw, who’s a model student, and who never gets in trouble. My friend, My friend Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, has a book called Ace of Spades, and those kids are messy as fuck. I want every Black book to have the space to be messy as fuck from here on out. That’s my dream.
“I want every Black book to have the space to be messy as fuck from here on out. That’s my dream.”
There is so much love in this book. Liz has best friends who love her (even if they make mistakes), she has a girl who loves her, and she has a family that loves her.
When I started writing Crown, I was not out to anyone, least of all myself. The idea that a queer, Black, anxious girl from middle-of-nowhere Indiana could be embraced wholly and fully by the people she loves most felt like a fantasy. It didn’t feel possible for [me or for] anyone. I wrote wish fulfillment on the page. I gave her friends that cared for her, I gave her a brother and grandparents who would go to war for her, and I gave her a girlfriend who thinks the sun shines out of her ears. I gave her that on the page because I could only hope that, one day, that would happen for me.
When I announced the book [on Twitter], the reception went really well. So my mom was like, we should be celebrating this. She flew to New York on a day’s notice and was like, we have to spend this day together. We went to see The Prom on Broadway, and it was this glorious night. The Prom is about a queer girl from Indiana who just wants to go to the prom with her girlfriend. I was miserable; my anxiety was at an all-time high. The producers of the show were sitting behind us, and my mom at some point turned to them and said, “My daughter has this book coming out. It’s queer. She’s not. But it’s queer.” I wanted to throw up. I realized I couldn’t possibly put this book into the world and not be honest about who I was.
We went to dinner after the play and over a plate of barbecue chicken wings, I broke down sobbing and said, “I’m sorry for embarrassing you, but I have to tell you. I don’t want you to be ashamed of me, but I understand if you are.” My mom just looked at me, and it was a moment I realized how deeply I loved my mother. And she said, “There is nothing you could ever do or say that would make me ashamed to have you as my daughter.” That’s where the scene with Granny comes from, when she says, “My only hope for you is that you don’t ever burn less fast and less bright than you are right now. Because I love you for those things.” That’s why it’s so important to me. I need whomever comes to this book to know that if nobody else sees you, I see you—and there will be someone else who sees you, too.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to note that the book Johnson mentions is Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s Ace of Spades, rather than Amanda Foody’s Ace of Shades. [July 1, 8:00 a.m. PST.]