Leah Johnson’s debut You Should See Me in a Crown is a book that I’ve been wanting to read for a while. I have been on a fantasy kick for so long that I wanted to wait until the right moment to read this contemporary YA fiction novel. Well, after a 20 or 30 something book streak (I didn’t really keep track), I put fantasy to the side and picked this one up, and what a joy it was!
The premise of the book is that Liz Lighty, a teen living in a small midwestern town, loses her financial aid to her dream college. Liz jumps at the opportunity to enter her school’s competition for prom queen, because the winner receives a scholarship. As the only Black girl and quote, unquote uncool kid in the race, Liz worries that she’s too different from anyone else for her campaign to gain traction. When she and a fellow contestant start falling for each other, Liz and her friends worry that her chances at winning will be damaged. What follows is a wonderful story that centers Black joy.
The book is happy, but it’s also poignant.
Before I read the book, I kept seeing reviews and comments talking about how sweet it is. I think the book is sweet, but Johnson doesn’t shy away from showing her readers the hard parts of life. Liz is definitely a happy character, but she also has to contend with serious issues, such as her brother’s health, and losing her financial aid for college. Johnson makes readers confront the fact that life is very unfair sometimes. The book isn’t sweet because nothing bad happens. It’s sweet because, despite bad things happening to them, the characters generally love each other and approach situations with positivity.
The characters are dynamic. They aren’t shoved into archetypal boxes.
I think that one of Johnson’s strengths is how accurately she portrays teenagers. Some writers label their teenage characters as having one defining label, i.e. “cool” or “band geek.” But this book really shows that people are more than their labels. Not all of the “popular” kids suck. Not all of the “nerds” lack social skills. People contain more than one trait. The perfect example of this is one of Liz’s friends, Jordan. At the beginning of the book, even Liz has written him off as a jock. Jordan doesn’t exclusively see himself that way, which he tries to prove to Liz.
Of course, this isn’t to say that every character is good. Liz has to deal with some serious racism during her campaign for prom queen. Sometimes the “mean girls,” and mean boys for that matter, really are evil
Liz is such a dynamic main character. At the beginning of the novel, she has defined herself as someone who could never run for prom queen. She doesn’t think of herself as particularly cool. But Liz has to learn that she contains multitudes! Throughout the book, She has to contend with the labels that she’s put on herself.
The love story is moving.
The love story is fitting for 2020. Liz does have some concerns about being outed as gay to her whole town, but her feelings are different than what they could have been twenty years ago. Obviously, people still face a lot of opposition for being gay in 2020, but queer narratives aren’t always centered around this pivotal coming out moment anymore. This is true for Liz. She is happy and content with her sexuality, and her family and friends support her, but she still has some apprehension about publicly announcing her sexuality to the whole school (relatable). She has to contend with this when she meets the girl of her dreams. Liz really is compatible with this girl. They have lots of interests in common, and it was so touching to watch them find their way to each other over the course of the novel.
If anything, I would have liked to see the love interest in the book a little more.
The love story was not the main point of the novel, but I still wish that it had gotten a little more page time! Liz and her love interest have to grow a lot as people before they can get together, and this part of the story is so moving that I wish Johnson had focused on it just a little bit more! There was so much going on in the book, however, that I understand why she didn’t.
Johnson doesn’t shy away from portraying the complexity of teenage friendship.
I like the way that Johnson portrays friendships. She shows readers how important they are, especially to teenagers. I think that some of the most complex relationships in the book are between Liz and her friends. Liz is able to overcome obstacles because she’s personally determined, yes, but also because she has a great support network. She has fights with her friends, which is unfortunately realistic, but they will always gather to support her and help her. They want to see her succeed. Her friendship with Jordan was particularly poignant. The idea of revisiting a friendship that went wrong many years ago is something that I think will cause many people to have feelings.
I love the way Johnson depicts family.
The way that Johnson depicts family is perhaps the most moving part of the book, for me. Liz is surrounded by a loving family that consists of her two grandparents and her brother. They are not perfect people, and sometimes they make mistakes, but they love each other and they stick together. I like reading about families who have been through serious heartbreak, but are still happy. They can still function and love each other. It is a delight to see and to read.
I highly recommend this book.