Review: You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

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Liz Lighty has always believed she’s too black, too poor, too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But it’s okay — Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor.

But when the financial aid she was counting on unexpectedly falls through, Liz’s plans come crashing down . . . until she’s reminded of her school’s scholarship for prom king and queen. There’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, but despite her devastating fear of the spotlight she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington.

The only thing that makes it halfway bearable is the new girl in school, Mack. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz. But Mack is also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them come true? 

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

              I can’t hold enough of this book in my hands. 

              I listened to the audiobook, and it was excellent. Alaska Jackson’s narration called to me like a long night’s dreamless sleep after months of fitful nightmares. I listened to it everywhere until I emerged from my trance. But then it was over, and I was overwhelmed with a sweet, unconfined joy edged with melancholy as if I were already mourning its loss. I wished, then, that the story could be solid and picked up and held close, so that I could reach for it and trace the words with my fingers whenever I needed. I immediately ordered a physical copy right there and then.

              You Should See Me in a Crown follows the story of Liz Lighty who wanted nothing but to not feel an ache in her soul where some part of her always felt wanting.

              Liz hung her hopes on a scholarship to Pennington—her dream school—which she believed would be “the fast track to the rest of [her] life.” But a rejection letter douses Liz’s dream in her chest, and Liz suddenly feels she has lost her own story, fallen out of its pages, and landed in a country from which she couldn’t return. But when her brother convinces her to run for prom queen—with its $10,000 scholarship prize—the idea strikes Liz as sensible in a mad sort of way. Liz—who is accustomed to being quiet, a world unto herself, held tight and secretive, and feels secure in the near invisibility her insignificance in the high school hierarchy bestows upon her—knows this is her only chance, but dreads the exhausting artifice that comes when you put yourself onstage, and ask to be judged.

             A burning determination glows in Liz, nonetheless. Liz will be her school’s “infamous, subversive, dangerous, queer-as-hell prom queen wannabe” if that’s what it takes to seize her dreams. The playing field might be a steep incline with Liz at the bottom with boulders attached to both her ankles, but she is determined to push and push until something breaks in her favor, for once. That’s the Lighty Way, after all.

We feel, but we always fight. It’s the Lighty Way. 

              Johnson tells a deeply compassionate and strongly felt story about the howling cold of unbelonging—that lonely dwelling-place inside that sometimes threatens to leak out and drown you—and her telling found the seams inside me and tugged. What hangs over Liz, and what the author illustrates with aplomb, is the traces of shadow where a broken system—or rather, a system that is working just as designed—has been breaking its hand against the bones of people who didn’t fit the mold of “cis, het, and white.”

              Liz Lighty is surrounded on all sides by people who moved through the world without expectation of a door slammed in their faces. People who would look at her from the narrow parapet of their noses, finding her wanting, and glide past as if she were no more valuable than pebbles one picks up off the street. Those who would invade her, shrink her borders, and dim the light inside her like a dying lamp.

             For years, Liz had let their words lurk quietly under the surface of herself. She learned to whittle herself down to a few essential truths—being a good granddaughter and sister, an excellent student, a first-chair clarinet player—keep her head down, and fit the small shape the world left for her. But Liz is fed up with the idea of being judged, cast in a role, given a title, measured up, inevitably found lacking—and I was buoyed by her and the wellspring of strength and defiance she was capable of drawing from.

              The heart of the novel is clear, star-bright, and powerful. There’s a fire burning in You Should See Me in a Crown like furnace doors thrown wide open so you can feel the flames—the bright fire of someone who is determined to exist in a way that is unpalatable to others, who is unafraid to take up space, to participate in the world, to reach out and grasp its beating core with bare hands, to be awake.

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.

              The friendships in this book also emanate heat like a summer-warmed stone, and it poured through me like sunshine. Liz’s friends are a calm and steady port in the storm of her life, the ones who would shore her up, and wrap up the hurt. They’re the grass between the nettles—a safe place for her to land. But friends can break your heart like fine china too, and the novel doesn’t shy away from showing how friendship breakups can carve just as deep.

              Liz’s friendship with Jordan, in particular, pierced a little too close to my heart. Liz passes Jordan in the school hallways, works besides him on extracurricular activities, and does her best to act as if they had never quarreled, and never parted and were in fact no more than casual acquaintances in the first place. But Liz feels the distance between them like the raw furrows of a wound. The memory of what he’s done four years before is a fresh stab: not just disappointment, or anger, but grief too, real grief, for something lost. The place Jordan had left behind is like a hollow bubble, a missing tooth, a cavity Liz couldn’t stop tonguing inside her heart. But Liz and Jordan were planets in orbit, pulling at each other as surely as gravity. Their friendship might be damaged and eroded, but it was not destroyed. They had both given each other wounds, but they were not mortal, and in their own halting ways, they were trying very hard to make amends, to make up for the hurt, so that their jagged edges might once again fit together like puzzle pieces.

              The tenderness with which the author writes the sapphic romance blooming between Liz and Mack—Liz’s rivaling prom queen candidate—was ineffable and aching, and it tugged at my heart like the moon pulling the ocean home. I yearned to find some way to hook myself to their story, to their soft moments together, and never leave. And their first kiss! It delighted me, and made my chest ache. I must’ve played that part at least a dozen times!

Because here, always, we deserve this good thing. 

              The experience of reading You Should See Me in a Crown felt like pulling the curtains open on a sunny morning—it glowed bright like shining silver, and beamed light into the darkest corners. So go grab your copy, and bask in the glow!

One thought on “Review: You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson

  1. This reviews reads like a love letter to You Should See Me in A Crown.
    “The heart of the novel is clear, star-bright, and powerful. There’s a fire burning in You Should See Me in a Crown like furnace doors thrown wide open so you can feel the flames.” wow, just wow! I can’t wait to read this!


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