Finding Black queer joy in the chaotic world of high school prom season.
Prom can mean a lot of things to different people; for me, it means indifference and some nice photos taken in my backyard. But that doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to the fun of YA prom: the friends, the date, the outfits. Prom stories are popular because they encapsulate so much of the quintessential American high school experience full of drama and traditions that in hindsight may not have aged well by 2020. So what could challenging those traditions look like? I think a glimpse at what new YA fairy tales should be lies in Leah Johnson’s debut novel, You Should See Me in A Crown.
You Should See Me in A Crown follows high school senior Liz Lighty who lives in Campbell, Indiana, a small town obsessed with prom. It’s the last few months of her final semester, aka the start of prom season, and Liz can’t wait to get out. As one of the few Black students in the school, on top of being one of the few queer (but not openly out) students, on top of being from a working-class family, the last four years have only reinforced a feeling of “otherness.” But when her ticket out of town and into her dream college falls through, Liz is left with one desperate play: running for prom queen and winning the scholarship that goes with it. “Five weeks to take myself from ‘Liz Lighty: Unapologetic Wallflower’ to ‘Liz Lighty: Slightly More Apologetic Prom Queen Contender.’” At first, it seems straightforward enough if not an uphill battle against legacy contenders in the school; there are even some perks, like reconnecting with her childhood best friend. Then the plan gets complicated when Liz begins to crushing on one of her queen competitors, but acting on it could cost her the crown. But some battles are worth fighting for, especially in high school.
It’s not all prom all the time, though. Liz’s life also includes her love of music, her close friends, and the importance of family. Liz and her younger brother lost their mother as kids to sickle-cell anemia, a condition her brother Robbie inherited. They live with their grandparents and in the moments we see the family it’s like peeking into their living room after dinner: cozy, warm, and full of love. Liz’s experience with sickle-cell and loss inspired her to become a blood doctor, a path she’s well on her way to achieving, and she works tirelessly to ease the burden on her grandparents. But when an emergency brings them all to the hospital, Liz is reminded how much love surrounds her, “(even) if it isn’t always perfect, especially when it’s a little messy, we know how to love one another fiercely.” It’s the Lighty family way, and it shows in Liz’s friendships too. Not only does she reconnect with old friends, but she also begins to see what it means for old friends to grow in different directions. And I don’t want to give too much away, but her relationship with the mysterious new girl is as dreamy and cute as all good YA books deserve. Relationships, of all kinds, aren’t easy and Liz navigates them as best she knows how.
You Should See Me in A Crown is my favorite type of YA novel, the one that reminds me of the fun and joy of being a teen. There’s a special energy and earnest-y to being a teen, the years of starting to leave behind childhood and figuring out complex issues like identity and personal values. Teens and kids have to deal with the difficulties of socioeconomic class, race, and sexuality every day, but that shouldn’t be at the cost of enjoying life. Black queer teens should get to fall in love, pursue their passions, and go to school dances.
“Thank you to Black girls everywhere––in all our flawed, free, fantastic glory. …There is no world in which we’re not both miracle and magic, in which we’re not worthy of every happy ending.”Leah Johnson, “You Should See Me in A Crown” acknowledgments.
It’s important for young readers, especially young Black readers, to see Liz living a full life that includes the hardships of reality along with a happy ending. There’s a balance in storytelling to being true to life and true to a story, and I think Johnson did both beautifully.
I think it would be dismissive to say that You Should See Me in A Crown is “just” a teen rom-com and not to focus on its Blackness or queerness; like any person, Liz Lighty is all of those things and brings those aspects of her identity into all parts of the story. The tone reminds me a lot of Alice Wu’s Netflix movie, The Half of It: it’s a love story, at its core, but not solely about the girl-likes-girl love. That’s essential, but there’s also the love of complicated friendships, unconditional family love, and loving every aspect of yourself. You Should See Me in A Crown is sweet, and joyful, and recalls the magic of what being a teen should feel like. It’s not easy, when nearly everything is stacked against you, but you still get wins sometimes too and those should be celebrated. “Because here, always, we deserve this good thing.”