Buy You Should See Me in a Crown
Special price: $14.39 Regular price: $17.99
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Reviewer: Melissa on August 18, 2020
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Ever since I first heard about You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson, I knew I had to read it, and not only because I wanted to make a point of reading more books by Black authors and featuring more books with Black main characters. Not even because I was excited to find another book with a Black and queer main character. Although all of the above reasons were true, I was particularly interested to read it when I heard Leah Johnson talk about this book as a queer fairy tale where the Black queer character gets the happily ever after she deserves with the girl she likes and still gets everything else she wants in life, too. So often in pop culture, the queer characters—Black or otherwise—end up traumatized or dead before the story ends, so to know before I picked it up that that this would make my cute and fluffy queer heart sing, I was sold.
Liz Lighty has always believed that she’s too Black, too poor, and too awkward to shine in her small, rich, prom-obsessed midwestern town. But that’s okay. Liz has a plan that will get her out of Campbell, Indiana, forever: attend the uber-elite Pennington College where her mom went to school, play in their world-famous orchestra, and become a doctor. When the financial aid package she was counting on doesn’t come through, her plans come crashing down…until her little brother reminds her that winning the title of prom queen would get her the money she needs to make her dreams come true. While there’s nothing Liz wants to do less than endure a gauntlet of social media trolls, catty competitors, and humiliating public events, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to get to Pennington even if it means challenging her devastating fear of the spotlight at every turn. Mack, the new girl at school, is the only thing that makes it all bearable. She’s smart, funny, and just as much of an outsider as Liz, but she’s also in the running for queen. Will falling for the competition keep Liz from her dreams . . . or make them all come true?
In high school English, you learn that stories should start in medias res, which is Latin for “into the middle of things,” and You Should See Me in a Crown follows this rule perfectly. We’re introduced to Liz as she’s clutching her lunch tray and walking through the heart of her Campbell County high school, the cafeteria, when, at any moment, a slight misstep could mean any number of students could capture her embarrassment on their phones for Campbell Confidential, the Twitter-esque app one of their school’s seniors created that can make or break one’s life at Liz’s school. Not only are we introduced to THE social media app right away, but also a bunch of key characters in the school’s popular crowd, like Rachel Collins, Derek Lawson, and Jordan Jennings, aka Liz’s popular rival, her boyfriend, and Liz’s ex-BFF, as well as Liz’s group of friends: Gabi, Stone, and Britt. However, within the same few pages, Liz and her friends refer to one another with multiple nicknames, including Lizzo for Liz and either Marino or G for Gabi, which kept my head spinning a little until I caught on. That said these authorial decisions are not only great for the pacing of the book, but also the various nicknames and the pop-culture filled banter of Liz and her friends will certainly appeal to teen readers.
Campbell County is a place where fitting in is of primary importance, especially in a world where the rules state that one can’t attend prom with someone of the same gender and attendees must wear a dress if they’re a girl or a tux if they’re a boy. However, Leah Johnson made sure to include a range of diversity that actually reflects the world today. Yes, Liz is Black and queer…although other than her best friends, no one at Campbell knows about her sexuality. In addition, Liz has anxiety, which is presented in a bunch of different ways, including vomiting when she is having a panic attack after an argument with Mack causes them to break up. While the physical affects are different than those that happen to me, I really identified with Liz and the way her anxiety causes real physical affects on her body. Due to her representation of anxiety, it’s clear to me that Leah Johnson understands just how it can affect people, like Liz, even when it has been relatively dormant for many years.
Still, Liz isn’t the only character who is marginalized in the novel. First, Jordan Jennings and his family, like Liz’s, are also Black, and unlike Liz, he is in the popular crowd like many of the wealthy and athletic types at Campbell. Moreover, Liz volunteers at a community centre for young Black kids run by Dr. L, a Black hematologist, who specialized in sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects many Black kids, teens, and adults, though it doesn’t exclusively affect Black people. This is important because her mother had sickle cell anemia, and Liz’s younger brother Robbie also has this genetic disease. The addition of Mack aka Amanda McCarthy, the new girl at school who is always late and is, like Liz and Gabi, in the school band, adds another prominent character who is queer. Finally, Liz and Mack’s shared love of the band Kittredge also adds a queer dynamic to the story since the lead singer has been ambiguous about her sexuality throughout the course of her career and even wrote a song when rumours that she was bi began circulating. In other words, while Liz definitely sticks out in some circles of Campbell County, and especially among those vying for Prom King and Queen, there is, nevertheless, a community that reflects a safe space for her throughout the book.
That doesn’t mean that it’s inherently safe to be Black and queer in Campbell County. In fact, everyone, including Liz, has long believed that if her school knew she was queer, then she would never stand a chance at winning. So while Liz asks Mack to keep their relationship on the down low solely because it could be dangerous to be out for her, Liz isn’t being completely honest with her. It’s more that she needs to win the title for the scholarship money, but she’s too embarrassed to say this to anyone outside of her family and her closest friends. As you can imagine, this lie by omission and the fact that Liz doesn’t even tell her friends that she’s dating Mack causes a lot of tension and could easily ruin everything between them. At the same time, if Liz is somehow outed, she stands to lose all of her dreams about getting out of Campbell and becoming a doctor who could cure the disease that killed her mother and could kill her little brother by being kicked out of the race for Prom Queen.
Beyond the tensions that I’ve already discussed, there are a couple of other things that I really loved about this book. You Should See Me in a Crown hit me right in the feels, especially when it comes to the details related to sickle cell anemia and how it had affected Liz’s life indirectly. Before the beginning of this year (or late last year), I didn’t know much about sickle cell other than that those affected would have blood cells that were shaped like crescent moons instead of circles and that Stephanie Edwards, a fictional character who used to be on Grey’s Anatomy, had it. But sometime over the last year, I learned that one of my coworkers has it, and after he had a sickle cell crisis, he gave me somewhat of an idea about what would happen when he wasn’t feeling well. You Should See Me in a Crown, however, filled in a lot more details about it. After the book mentioned the life expectancy of a woman with it, I felt curious about what the life expectancy of men with it is, and I was a little shook by that information. Especially when I could see how worried Liz was all the time about her brother.
I also loved seeing the dynamic between Liz and Gabi as well as Liz and Jordan as the novel developed both of them. Gabi wants to be Liz’s Prom Queen campaign manager, and she goes out of her way to try and make Liz fit into the mold of what she thinks a Prom Queen could be. That means, clothes that are so not Liz and suggesting that she gets seen more often with someone like Jordan Jennings than with Mack, even going so far as creating a hashtag that makes it seem as though there might be something romantic going on between the two old friends. These suggestions as well as other information that comes up over the course of the novel really affects their friendship in large part because it picked at Liz’s long-held anxieties about needing to hide her true self. By contrast, the way that Liz and Jordan slowly begin reconnecting over the course of the novel is a beautiful representation of having someone in your life who knows the deepest parts of you, likes them, and helps you to believe in yourself.
If you’re looking for a book that resists the status quo, but nevertheless, offers it’s Black, queer, and anxious main character a chance at a real happily ever after, then you have to pick up You Should See Me in a Crown!
Don’t believe me: it was recently selected as the first YA pick for Reese’s Book Club, and the guest editor who will talk with Leah Johnson live on the book club Instagram account will be none other than Lexi Underwood, the young, Black actress who played Pearl Warren on the tv show Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved! Check it out on Hulu in the US or Amazon Prime in Canada.
Purchase You Should See Me in a Crown today for a great price!