In recent years, I’ve seen a completely amazing trend take root in YA literature: what I like to call “zany high school hijinks but make them gay.” For somebody who grew up at a time when a lot of LGBT books for teens were either a.) all about the pain of being gay, or b.) all about the pain and drama of coming out, I absolutely cannot get enough of this new wave of LGBT YA. In part because it really emphasizes that being LGBT is normal, good, and way more common than a lot of people think; and in part because, dammit, these books are fun. When I think back to when I was a teenager reading YA, and how much I scoffed at those “cliché high school stories,” I can’t help but wonder if what I really disliked about them was that nothing about them felt relatable.
Representation matters, and it matters especially for queer people of color in a literary landscape that still, for the LGBT community and at large, looks overwhelmingly white. For this and about a million other reasons, Leah Johnson’s debut novel You Should See Me in a Crown—featuring a queer Black protagonist campaigning to be her high school’s prom queen—is both a breath of fresh air and an absolute delight.
It’s Liz Lighty’s senior year of high school, and she’s got it all figured out. Sure, her high school years weren’t a walk in the park—in addition to being Black and poor in a majority white and rich community, Liz has suffered from anxiety since childhood, and only her family and closest friends know that she’s queer. But Liz is smart and ambitious (she’s class valedictorian AND first chair in her school orchestra), and she already has her ticket out of small-town Indiana: she’s been accepted to the prestigious Pennington College, her late mother’s alma mater. However, at the last minute, scholarship money she had counted on to pay her tuition falls through. Left with no other good options, Liz makes what is, for her, a radical decision: to throw her hat in the ring for a scholarship Campbell County High School awards each year—to the prom queen.
But prom is no joke at Campbell County High School—it’s an obsession, for both the students and the community at large. I loved the way Johnson wrote the prom to be this larger-than-life event, overinflated in its importance to not just the students at Campbell, but many of the teachers, as well. It felt like a riff on the (often true) stereotype of high schools that are obsessed with their student athletes, and was really creative in what it demanded from Liz. Campaigning for prom king and queen is like being in a bizarre cross between a Miss America pageant and The Amazing Race, with bake-offs, community service projects, powder puff football games, and, of course, good old-fashioned campaign posters and buttons. All of which is fanatically documented on social media by a group that calls themselves the Prom Projectioners. It’s a ridiculously high-stress environment for someone like Liz: quiet, reserved, and eager to go unnoticed. To say nothing of her competition, which includes mean girl Rachel Collins, her former best friend Jordan Jennings, and a new girl named Mack whom Liz miiiiiiight just have a bit of a crush on.
The really magical thing about this novel is that it starts with Liz and her friends desperately trying to turn her into a prom queen—like the cliché makeover seen in teen movies where the “ugly duckling” turns into a swan. But gradually, something amazing starts to happen: Liz succeeds not by changing herself, but by being exactly who she is and utilizing strengths she already has. What’s more, she discovers that people like her for being exactly who she is. In an interview with Goodreads, Leah Johnson stated that her aim in writing this story was “for Black girls to come to my books and walk away knowing that they are loved. That they deserve beautiful things—that they are their own most beautiful thing.” Liz discovers that she is her own most beautiful thing not in spite of the things that make her different in her community—being Black, poor, and queer—but because of them, and the response from the community around her reflects that in a really beautiful, positive way.
Of course, it isn’t all kindness and support from every corner. Liz does meet with pushback from bullies and the school administration, who don’t mind if she wins prom queen—as long as it’s on their terms.
You could make history if you just follow our rules.
You could be a real credit to your people if you just straighten up and fly right.
You could actually be worth something if you would shut up and take what we give you.
And I know then what I’ve always known: Campbell is never going to make a space for me to fit. I’m going to have to demand it.
This is a powerful, affirming book, but it’s also fun and full of joy and has some downright swoony romantic scenes. (I guess I’m someone who swoons, now? The romance was definitely swoony.) If for some reason that doesn’t convince you, there’s a part midway through the book where a character goes on a rant about how Avatar: The Last Airbender is the greatest show ever made. Leah Johnson, I knew you were speaking my language.