Though she is a longtime writer, Leah Johnson had no intention of making writing her career prior to penning her debut novel, You Should See Me in a Crown (Scholastic Press). Her first dream was to be a reporter. Through journalism school at Indiana University Bloomington and internships at the Wall Street Journal and NPR, among others, Johnson honed her writing talent.
As one of the few Black student reporters at IU in 2015, Johnson was tasked with reporting on the impact of systemic racism and police brutality against Black people, including the evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the killing of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. She says she accepted this responsibility even though it took a physical toll. “I was writing a lot about Black pain, about trauma.”
By her senior year, Johnson found that the emotionally taxing work “wasn’t bringing joy anymore.” In order to recapture that joy, she reoriented herself toward a pastime that gave her happiness as a child: storytelling. After applying to several graduate programs for creative writing, Johnson was accepted to and chose the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence.
From there, Johnson calls her path to publication “super accelerated.” She was approached by agent Sarah Landis at Sterling Lord Literistic after writing a well-received essay for Electric Literature in 2018 on the lack of diversity in YA books that she had read growing up. She then gave herself a timeline, allotting a year for querying, two years for submission, and, she hoped, four years to publish a novel.
What happened instead was that Johnson graduated with an MFA in fiction writing that May and signed a deal for Crown in early summer, based solely on a synopsis and a 30-page writing sample. All this was thanks to the combined efforts of Landis and Scholastic editor Maya Marlette, whom Johnson calls “the best editor in business.”
Crown has seen a wave of support from readers hungry for stories that reflect their experiences and has landed on the Indie Bound bestseller list. Born out of a love of late-’80s and ’90s teen comedies, as well as Sarah Dessen’s contemporary YA romances, Crown sets out to queer the conventional narrative of the thin, white, blonde, and wealthy all-American prom queen. “I wanted to turn those ideas on their heads,” Johnson says. “All of those honors and accolades and the love that comes along with being prom queen, I wanted to give all those things to somebody who traditionally has been told that they don’t deserve those things.”
In many ways the political climate that led to Crown is reflected in the charged environment of 2020, as communities across the country protest a series of unjustifiable deaths at the hands of police and refuse to let any more go unchallenged or unpunished. Crown, which takes place in a predominantly white high school in Indiana, confronts that systemic racism on a smaller, if equally insidious, scale. There, the main character, Liz Lighty, faces classism, racism, and queerphobia: a culture in which a poor Black queer girl is impossible for some to accept as prom queen.
Teen readers aren’t the only ones who have embraced Crown; fellow Black writers such as Namina Forna (The Gilded Ones) and Kim Johnson (This Is My America) rallied on social media around Johnson and other Black women with recent debuts, including Roseanne A. Brown and Bethany C. Morrow, to ensure that their books weren’t buried amid the media storm surrounding the protests.
Though she is enjoying Crown’s success, Johnson finds it hard to believe that her dream of publication has come true. “It’s still a massive shock to me that a lot of somebodies found this type of story valuable enough to spend their time on reading it and their money on buying it,” she says.
It’s evident in Crown that Johnson has rediscovered her joy in the written word, and she intends to continue her mission of normalizing queer Black girl joy in her sophomore work, Rise to the Sun, to be published by Scholastic in 2021. “If nothing else, this pandemic has given me a renewed understanding of Black women solidarity,” she says. “Thank God for Black women. Thank God for the Black women who rallied behind me. Literally none of us would be here without them.”