Q&A With Y.A. Sensation Leah Johnson

YA author Leah Johnson
YA author Leah Johnson.

Photo courtesy Scholastic Inc.

Leah Johnson’s debut young adult novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, is a modern love letter to queer Black girls that’s earning critical praise in print and online. The novel was most recently selected as the first YA novel pick for celebrity Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club and has earned good reviews from Forbes, Teen Vogue, and BuzzFeed, among others.

The novel follows the story of Liz Lightly, an awkward Black girl from the fictional town of Campbell, Indiana. She’s an introvert—quiet and queer—in an affluent all-white town that shuns difference. When the high school senior finds out she unexpectedly lost out on the financial aid she needs to attend her dream college, she runs for prom queen in order to win a $10,000 scholarship. It’s during the race to the crown that Liz find herself in a whirlwind of high school drama, family issues, and a new crush.

We recently spoke with Johnson, 26, a proud Hoosier from the west side of Indy to learn more about her debut novel, relationship with Indiana, thoughts on the current moment, and what’s next.

 Where did your passion for writing come from, and how did you set out on this path to pursue a career as an author?

I was just a voracious reader as a child. My mom had cultivated in me a love of stories and storytelling so that even when we didn’t have a lot of economic resources, she always found the means to ensure that there were books in the house. I read so many books about lives that were so different from my own—it was all so fantastical for me, because it was outside of what I knew to be true about the way people moved through the world.

I didn’t think it was possible to be an author for a living—it wasn’t something I could conceptualize. But reporters were writers, and I realized I could do that. I could write and tell the news. I became the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper, and during college, I did various internships with the Wall Street Journal, WFIU in Bloomington, and the NPR affiliate in Nashville. Eventually, I ended up applying to grad school and ended up at Sarah Lawrence, and soon after I started writing You Should See Me in a Crown.

 I don’t think I’ve ever read a young adult book like this, that features a queer love story so prominently. What inspired you?

When I sat down to work on You Should See Me in a Crown, I was writing into the empty spaces that I identified in growing up. There weren’t a lot of narratives about kids like me. I didn’t come out or identify as queer until my adulthood. But what I know is that when I was younger, I was deeply anxious about growing up in relative poverty and going to a school that was technically diverse, but constantly finding myself in situations in which I was the only Black person. So, my understanding of race was not only flawed, it was incomplete. I didn’t have a nuanced enough understanding of what it means to be who I was because I didn’t see myself reflected in the work I was reading.

When I came to write Crown, what I wanted to do was queer the understanding of what the All-American high school girl is. We often think of the prom queen as the thin rich white girl who has the world at her fingertips, and I wanted to flip that narrative on its head. What does it look like when we take a deeply anxious, queer Black girl from relative poverty and put a crown on her head and call her a queen? What does that say?

And so I was drawing on a lot of those feelings of isolation and alienation that I had experienced at different points in my adolescence and channeling them and processing them in my adulthood into Liz’s experience. I wasn’t out when I started writing this book—I still hadn’t put a name to my queerness. And so, as I was writing this book, I was thinking about the things I wished could be possible for me, but didn’t think would be possible. Like having a family that can love you through your coming out or finding a girl who sees you and supports you and will stand up with you in your queerness boldly. That’s the heart of the story.

Having read Crown, it does a superb job navigating issues relating to racism, homophobia, and classism, yet weaving in the uplifting message of “Black Joy” and “Black Girl Magic.” Can you talk about balancing these elements as you wrote the story? 

I sold Crown before I had written it. Luckily, in that way, both me and my editor were aware of what exactly this book needed to become. We knew that what we wanted was a Black girl happy-ending story.

But when I think about being a queer Black woman in America—really anywhere—my joy is always bound up in pain. My triumph is bound up in struggle. My moments of levity are always bound up in moments of sadness. Those things exist together always. It’s the nature of being Black in America. You’re constantly going to contend with things that are very tough.

The only way I can understand Black joy is to write it in the context of resistance–this world doesn’t want me to exist, so I’m going to exist anyway. This world doesn’t want me to experience love, so I’m going to love even harder. This world doesn’t want me to be free, and so everything that I do is going to be reaching toward liberation. And so that’s what I wanted to give Liz, that’s what I wanted to make clear on the page.

What’s it like to have written a book that’s been so warmly embraced?

It’s been overwhelming. I wrote this book for Black girls, for Black queer girls in particular. I figured my mom would buy 12 copies and friends might get a couple and that would be that. But as the positive reviews came in and features in Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and Parade magazine, my editor and I started screaming. It’s like every single thing that happens with this book knocks me off my feet because it’s so far outside of what I thought was possible for a book like this to do. And so, I’m grateful that people—not just a few people–a lot of people saw value in this story and have bought it.

Not for nothing, but it’s also not lost on me the confluence of events that came together that boosted my book in the way that it did. The week before my book came out, George Floyd was murdered. And we saw the Black Lives Matter movement picking up steam across the country again. And I think amid this, there were folks that actively fought to prevent my book, and other books debuting by Black YA writers, from getting drowned out. These books are crucial, they’re important in talking about Blackness and how Blackness can save us. And so that’s not lost on me, that one of the reasons that my book got the support it did is because it arose out of a great tragedy.

On that note, there’s been a lot going on in the world, between the global pandemic, social unrest, and the Black Lives Matter movement. How are you handling it? 

I was in Indy for four months sheltering in place at my parents’ house. But I recently just got back to Brooklyn.

I’m tired. I’ve been tired for like six months now. Part of it is because I was trying to promote Crown, part of it is because I have a day job that I’m still working, and part of it is because I’m trying to draft another book in my free time. But the lion’s share of the reason I’m exhausted is because it takes a lot to keep your head above water—when you step outside, when you turn on the news, when you look in the faces of your neighbors—knowing that they want you dead. I haven’t had to deal with that in the same way where I live in Brooklyn, because my community there looks much different. Most of my friends are queer, so my existence here is very different from there. So when I go back to Indiana and I’m driving past Trump signs in people’s yards and I’m watching white people refuse to wear masks—even though Black people are two to three times more likely to contract COVID and three times more likely to die from it than white people—that, to me, is a direct act of aggression against people like me and those that I love.

I was also in Indianapolis when Dreasjon Reed was killed on Facebook Live by a police officer. So, I’m also looking at the city respond poorly to this instance of racism at the hands of people that are supposed to be protecting us. The toll that that takes on the body and the spirit—I can’t stress enough how exhausting it is. Yeah, the pandemic sucks, it’s terrible. It’s terrifying. But even worse than the pandemic is watching this place that I love so much actively reject my presence here and that of all the people I care about. That’s been tough.

As someone who lives in Indiana and also identifies as brown and queer, I feel that there’s a tension here that exists between personal identity and collective identity. I’m curious about those who have a profound love for the place that they’re from, given the circumstances of the place they’re from. What’s your relationship to this place like?

To quote James Baldwin, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It’s because I love Indiana that I don’t think it’s fair for me to do this work and talk about this state without also pushing Indiana to be better than what it is. And if I want to write us into a future in which that’s possible, I don’t know if I can do that without being honest about the places that Indiana falls short and for whom Indiana falls short. There’s an ongoing tension between what I want Indiana to be and what it is.

It’s a tough position to be in because I’m truly so grateful to have been raised in the community that raised me. Everything I am is a product of the school system that brought me up, a product of the community that really took my mom in when she didn’t have anywhere else to turn. But it wasn’t always good to me. And it hasn’t always been good to people like me. But I have to believe it is possible for us to do better, to be better. Because if Hoosier hospitality is what we believe it to be, we owe it to each other and to ourselves to live up to that, always.

What’s next for you? You mentioned a forthcoming book. 

I have so many things in progress right now. And several of them I can’t tell you about because I’m contractually obligated to keep them to myself. But for now, we’re deep in the revision process for my second novel. It’s called Rise to the Sun. It’s about two girls named Toni and Olivia who both go to a music festival and search for two very different things. And along the way, they find each other and realize that for them to accomplish what they came to the festival to accomplish, they need each other. In the process of them going through this weekend, they might just fall in love. I’m not sure, I can’t give that away yet, but it’s a Leah Johnson novel, so there’s a safe bet they might fall in love. It’s slated to come out in summer 2021.

Editor’s note: The transcript—including questions and answers—has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.