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Author Leah Johnson puts Black queer girls front and center

Johnson’s young adult books celebrate the lives of these young women while interrogating the systems that oppress them.
NBC News / Courtesy of Leah Johnson

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The author Leah Johnson has vowed that, in her books, Black girls are always going to get two things: “happy endings and storybook, sometimes whirlwind, romances.” 

Leah Johnson’s debut, “You Should See Me In a Crown,” is about a young, queer Black girl in small-town Indiana who runs for prom queen as a way to fund her education. The book made TIME’s list of the “100 Best YA Books of All Time” and was the first young adult monthly pick for Reese’s Book Club

Johnson’s latest book, “Rise to the Sun,” is about two girls who find love at a music festival. Last year, she sold "Ellie Engel Saves Herself,” a middle-grade novel described as “a superhero origin story in the tone of ‘The Baby-Sitters Club.’”

While Johnson’s books are for a younger demographic, her work doesn’t shy away from examining the structures and systems pressing down on the shoulders of her characters — or her readers. 

“I think any story about high school is actually low-key very heavy. It’s hard to be a teenager and it’s hard not to have all the answers and it’s hard to think you have the answers, but not know what to do with them,” Johnson said. “I’m always trying to sort of Trojan-horse all my stories. Like, how can I use this? Take a fun, poppy, bubbly idea to shuffle in other ideas about what it means to be a human?” 

While “You Should See Me In a Crown” takes on the classic story of running for prom queen, it subverts the trope by using prom to examine power and privilege. Liz Lighty, the protagonist, is reaching for prom queen even as she feels “too Black, too poor, too awkward” in her small, prom-obsessed Indiana town. 

“Class and race and gender are always gonna be things that are of paramount importance to me,” Johnson said. “There is no story that I can tell that does not examine all the intersections of how we exist together.”

Johnson’s books seek to fill in the gaps of what was missing in the books of her youth, not only when it comes to characters, but also when considering themes and character traits. It’s why she tackles mental health in her work, she said, and in “You Should See Me In a Crown,” the character Liz Lighty describes both her anxiety and how she copes. Grief, and its many iterations, works its way into the prose as well. 

Both of Johnson’s books feature characters with complicated relationships to parentage and family, and two of her main characters are working through the loss of a parent. The characters are still close enough to the death of their parent that the pain is very much part of how they see and experience the world. 

“Grief is, to me, always central to the work of queerness, whether I’m talking about it explicitly on the page, or like I do in ‘You Should See Me in a Crown’ and ‘Rise to the Sun,’ with actual parental loss,” Johnson said. “We as queer people can think about queerness as something other than a loss, of something other than a thing that we had to give up in order to maybe gain something else.” 

Johnson’s work challenges the coming-out narrative as the end of someone’s story or a character’s narrative arc. While coming out has historically been the definitive story in the media for LGBTQ people, there is a growing call to reconsider the coming out story, and, if it is told, to show it in greater complexity, to rename it from “coming out” to “letting in,” or to examine how coming-out stories have been used to placate straight people.

Johnson has written characters who are young and already out, but that doesn’t mean that their identity stops being complicated or that their understanding of their identity stops evolving.  

“I wanted a story that was not necessarily about coming out, but about what it means to live alongside the decisions you have to make to survive,” Johnson said. “If we believe in coming out characterized as this ending, what happens when we get to the other side of that? We don’t stop at our hurt. We don’t stop at harm. We don’t stop at our grief. There is a life past that. What does it look like to live alongside our pain? What does it look like to live alongside our loss and still find joy, and still find a type of reckoning?” 

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tracking children’s books by and about Black people since 1985, and books by BIPOC writers since 1994. It began including LGBTQ identity in its data in 2018. In 2019, 115 books surveyed (or 3.1%) featured LGBTQ primary characters. Between 2021 and today, there have been 176 books that feature LGBTQ primary characters. 

While visibility is increasing, young queer people in America frequently find themselves the subject of increased legislation around their gender expression, the books they read, and whether or not they may attend drag shows. Last year, the American Library Association said attempts to ban books reached “unprecedented” levels.

Johnson said she recently visited a public school in Boston, Massachusetts, that had a large population of low-income kids of color, and a student asked her about the banning of LGBTQ books. They said, “What are we supposed to do?” And then, “What are you doing?” 

“These are the kids I imagine when I write my books,” Johnson said. “And I could sense in this question a sense of hopelessness, but also this scary, like, ‘You’re not just gonna take this, are you? You’re not just gonna let them do this to us?’” 

Johnson said books saved her life, and that it is “disgusting” to take the books away from children that could save their own lives. She says both the questions students ask her and the threats to her books are calls to action. Those who seek to limit the rights of queer youth, she said, are not going to stop.

“This is just the beginning for them, which means it has to be just the beginning for us as well, which means we have to come back twice as hard. We have to be twice as loud and as proud and as bold and as unapologetic,” Johnson said. “We have to approach this as if it’s a fight … this is a real, all-out war against ideas in lives — and it has to be taken that seriously.” 

Every time Johnson gets another Google alert about her book being threatened with censorship or that it is being placed under investigation for obscenity, she thinks of that student in Boston. 

“And then I go back to work,” she said. 

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