Leah Johnson grew up in central Indiana. Her debut novel, "You Should See Me in a Crown" follows Liz Lighty who must fit in with the prom-obsessed high schoolers to get out of small-town Campbell Indiana while ultimately making a space for herself to create her own happy ending.The book explores many issues around race, class, and sexuality. Her book was the first YA novel to be chosen as Reese Witherspoon's book of the month pick.
Leah spoke with WFYI's Robert Moscato-Goodpaster about her inspiration to challenge the image of the all-American girl, the importance of representation in YA literature, and the advice she'd give her high school self.
LEAH JOHNSON: So, 'You Should See Me In A Crown' is an attempt to upend all these ideals that I internalized about what it means to be the all-American girl, and all the time, those ideas come right back to the prom queen. What does it mean to be the prom queen? You're supposed to be skinny, you're supposed to be white, blond, probably a cheerleader, probably also wealthy even though nobody ever talks about you being rich, but it's just sort of implied that you're rich. All these ideas are hailed as the gold standard of girlhood. And so I wanted to interrogate those ideas through an institution that is as American as apple pie and that's prom. And so I wanted to take that girl who's been told as the gold standard of girlhood –– move her to the side –– make her a peripheral character and put the character that we ignore, make her the center of her own love story. And that's where Liz Lighty was born.
ROBERT MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Yeah. The book is centered in fictional Campbell Indiana, and instead of striving to fit in, Liz really works to create a space for herself as a young woman who's living in a town predominately white.
JOHNSON: I wanted to use this as a vehicle to look at who we hold-up as the standard and who we push further and further into the margins without ever really noticing it. Prom is this massive deal. It is a way for us to examine cis-centrism, heteronormativity, classism in this institution that often goes uncritiqued. And also, prom is just a lot of fun like it gives us a huge space to play around with prom-proposals, and powderpuff football games, and just really absurd fun scenes. So, it was for me, as a writer, a really exciting thing to get to play around with.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Did you go to prom?
JOHNSON: I did go to prom, but my prom was not as nearly as elaborate as Campbell County's.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Did you draw any experiences from your own prom?
JOHNSON: You know, I had a really strange relationship to prom. Like one of the first times, I remember being racially profiled in my life was when I was buying a prom dress, or trying to buy a prom dress from a small dress shop near where I grew up. And so, when I came to this book, I was drawing very heavily on the extremely fun experience I had at prom with my friends and the guy that I was with and, you know, putting this sort of cap on my high school experience in a really lovely way. But I also was drawing on the negative experiences that I had around prom. So the moment when, you know, I tried to buy my dress, and the woman told me it was too expensive for somebody like me and that I would probably just get it dirty if I put it on. And I wanted to integrate those in there as well because I think Liz Lighty deserves a happy ending. But if I was telling an honest story, girls like Liz Lighty aren't going to have that happy ending without coming up against some resistance in a town like Campbell.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Yeah. I read that you didn't see yourself in stories you read growing up, and so I was wondering if you did see a character like Liz growing up in literature, how do you think that would've altered your experience growing up as a queer black woman?
JOHNSON: Yeah, so, I think one of the interesting things is that I would not have identified as a queer when I was a teenager. I didn't feel like that was part of my experience or identity until I was an adult and so, I think if not, it would've been more permission-giving, I think, as a young person to see a queer black girl in a book –– in a book that is popular even. I think if I had seen that growing up. I wouldn't have struggled so much in my adulthood to come to terms with what my queerness meant for the rest of my life. I think I also would have been a more empathetic person. I think I would've been able to see people around me in a different light because that's what fiction does, it gives us windows and it gives us doors. And I think stories that are different from your experience or stories even that are in-line with your experience that you've never seen before affirms you but also shows you what is possible.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Do you hope then that other young women of color will hopefully see themselves in Liz, and then have that introduction in literature to see themselves?
JOHNSON: Oh absolutely. I hope that people can come to my books, and go to Nicola Yoon's books, and Elizabeth Acevedo's books, and Angie Thomas's books, and Ashley Woodfolk's books, and Kristina Forest's books. I can name all these incredible black women writers who are doing this work to broaden the scope of the black experience. I hope that they are able to come to these books and see themselves reflected, and know that they are cared for, know that they are being seen, and know that their experience is valid.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: For sure, yeah. While you were writing this book was there ever a time when you thought OK, Woah, this is too personal?
JOHNSON: You know, [laughs] I didn't think about how personal the book was until I was already removed from it. I started touring on the book, you know, and folks started asking me questions about my characters, and I realized they were not just asking questions about the character they were asking questions about me and so, I had to dig very deep and figure out like what I was comfortable sharing. What parts of my experiences were in the book. How much of this was, you know, fiction, but how much of it was also sort of auto-fiction and that was really challenging after the fact was figuring out where my hardlines are as far as like what is my public self and what needs to remain my private self. But like I said, I didn't think about that when I was writing and if I did, I don't know that I would've been able to write this book.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Yeah. Speaking of sharing, might I ask you to read part of your book?
JOHNSON: Yes, yes.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Is there anything before that we should know to set the scene?
JOHNSON: Yeah, so when I find the scene that I'm going to read, um... this comes from one of the first moments Liz gets to be alone with her love interest, Mack. They are not public with her relationship because Liz is not out and so, this is one of my favorite moments in the book that I got to write a little bit of romance –– alright.
"Do you actually like running for prom queen?" she says, and I have to admit I'm a little surprised. I wasn't expecting that. "I just thought this experience was going to be one thing –– one big, very cool thing –– and it's actually just ridiculously stressful." She looks at me and winces. "Is that horrible?" "No," I start. "You have no idea how completely un-horrible that is." Her fingers slip between mine in my lap, and my heart does that thing it always does around her now. Like it can't decide whether or not to expand five sizes in my chest or, you know, just burst out completely. "You're the best part about all of it." She looks down at where our hands are linked. "I would deal with the long hours and the bad volunteer gigs and the diatribes by Madam Simoné all over again if it meant we would end up here." I stop breathing. I almost don't know how to be with her like this, completely alone, completely vulnerable. I just know that I want to be. I just know that there's nowhere else I'd rather be, in fact, than in this car with Amanda McCarthy as she leans forward and holds my face in her hands.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: That's beautiful.
JOHNSON: Thank you.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: It was so interesting because it is a romance story but also you have a ... I think a really brilliant balance with also including family and friends as well. Which, I think gave more to Liz as a character –– made us fall in love with her more –– to see how much she gave to everyone in her life.
JOHNSON: Yeah, thank you. I just thought it was really important to, you know, offer as many examples of platonic and familial intimacy as I can. I think we often hold romantic intimacy as like the gold standard by which we think about love, but I think the things that teach us the most about love come from our friends and come from our family members.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Speaking of family, without giving too much away, Liz lost her mother to sickle cell disease, we learn, and her brother has it too. What made you want to highlight this disease in the book?
JOHNSON: Yeah, so sickle cell is an inherited blood disorder that affects primarily African American's. It is something you can live with, but it does also occasionally have dire side effects. And so, I was writing a book about class; I was writing a book about race, and I felt like what better way to explore the intersections of race and class than to talk about how those things affect healthcare and affect the way we approach protecting the people that we love, and so, Liz's goals are extremely family-oriented. She wants to protect her brother at all costs because she feels like so much in her life is outside of her control. And so, I wanted to one, highlight this thing that I had not seen reflected in books, but something I know intimately affects so many people that I care about, but I also thought that talking about chronic illness, talking about the familial effects of illness of someone in the family, how those things have ripple effects. What does that do to everyone around you? What does that mean for the way that you're able to move through the world? What does that mean for the way we have to show up for one another. And so, Sickle cell made a lot of sense narratively, but it was also something I wanted to talk about because it specifically has roots in the black community.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Mmhm, yeah. It's very prevalent now, given everything going on in today's society with the coronavirus.
JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you know, one of the things that's toughest about thinking about COVID is that we know it dispositionally affects black people. But we also know that we live in a country in which healthcare is not universal and so, a lot of folks that need treatment, they are going to be disproportionately treated and so, you know, they're not going to have the same level of healthcare, we know that's the case that other folks will receive, and so, especially in a moment like this, I think it's crucial for us to think about these things that you probably are not considering when you're showing up to the dentist or the doctor's office if you are not a person who is most affected by what those experiences mean.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Yeah. Knowing what you know now, after this whole experience, if you could go back, what advice would you tell your high school self?
JOHNSON: If I could tell my high school self anything, I would tell her that everybody is just as scared and confused as you are. Even though they look like they have it all together, even though they look like they have the answers, everybody is dealing with their own set of conflicts. They're just really good at hiding it, and so, you know, you don't have to make that joke about yourself so you could beat somebody else to the punch line –– everybody's scared. It's going to be OK. You just have to stick with it long enough to get out of there and you'll realize your people are out there.
MOSCATO-GOODPASTER: Well Leah, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you so so much.