Author Spotlight: Leah Johnson
|© Reece T. Williams
June 5, 2020
We are very excited to feature author Leah Johnson and her debut YA novel, YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN (Scholastic June 2, 2020). Enter to win a copy!
|Cover design by Stephanie Yang; photo © Michael Frost, lettering by Maeve Norton
Tell us about yourself and how you came to write for teens.
Hi! I’m Leah Johnson, I’m the author of two books for young adults, YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN, which just came out a few days ago, and RISE TO THE SUN, which will be out next year. I often describe myself as a writer, editor and eternal Midwesterner, because being from Indiana is one of my full-time jobs. I also consider myself a Mighty Ducks historian, so if you ever want to talk about the classic Disney underdog film, I’m your girl.
I came to write for teens through a pretty traditional path, honestly. I was in an undergraduate journalism program, and in the first semester of my last year of school decided that I wanted to reclaim the joy in my storytelling, so I began applying to MFA programs on the east coast. I ended up at Sarah Lawrence, and my time there were the two most transformative years of my life and career so far.
Congrats on your debut YA novel, YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN. Tell us about it and what inspired you.
YOU SHOULD SEE ME IN A CROWN is about a girl named Liz Lighty who wants to escape her small (and small-minded) Midwestern hometown and go to her dream college. But when Liz’s financial aid falls through, she has no choice but to run for prom queen in hopes of winning the scholarship attached to winning the crown. But when Liz starts to fall for her competition, will she choose the girl of her dreams or her dream of getting out?
I was heavily inspired by queering the quintessential John Hughesian image of the “all-American” high school experience, and past that, the all-American girl. If the stereotypical prom queen is white, popular, and “perfect” then in this book I wanted to put a girl in serious contention for the crown who is Black, hopelessly awkward and deeply anxious. And she’s still going to be worthy of it all. I’m interested in writing into the empty spaces I saw in YA as a teen, and I hope Crown does that well.
Was your road to publication long and winding, short and sweet, or something in between?
The entire path to getting Crown into the world feels like a whirlwind. My journey to publication is a little different than a lot of writers I know. For one, I didn’t even get the chance to query agents, because my agent found me after an essay I’d published (about the lack of diversity that I saw in YA growing up) and asked if I was working on anything. From there, it was sample pages and proposals and acquisitions and next thing I knew, I was signing my first contract. The whole thing took no more than four months. The wildest four months of my life up until that point, for sure! This has since been usurped by the paths we’ve spent in this pandemic, obviously.
What projects are you working on now? Are you able to concentrate these days?
Whew, this has been an incredibly tough few months for a number of reasons. I mean, right now in cities across the country, protestors are taking to the streets to protest the murders of black folks at the hands of the police, and this is coupled with a global pandemic that continues to ravage the country. All that to say, I’m definitely not concentrating well. But, my editor has been so great about giving me space for self care while I’m supposed to be turning around edits on my next book, RISE TO THE SUN, which is due out in 2021.
RISE TO THE SUN takes place over the course of a weekend at a music festival, and centers two girls named Toni and Olivia who meet and have to work together to complete a set of tasks during the three days they’re there. While things in the world are difficult to process, working on this book has been a spot of joy, and an excuse to return to one of my favorite places on earth: music festivals.
What are some recent YA picks you love?
Yes! I love this question, though I have to admit my reading this year has been almost offensively slow. But here’s what I’m loving and returning to this year:
MORE THAN JUST A PRETTY FACE by Syed M. Masood
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE by Lucas Rocha
THE HENNA WARS by Adiba Jaigirdar
LATE TO THE PARTY by Kelly Quindlen
ALL BOYS AREN'T BLUE by George M. Johnson
What advice would you give to your younger self? Is this the same advice you'd give to aspiring authors?
My advice to my younger self is twofold: don’t be afraid to take up space and stop cracking jokes at your own expense just to keep other people from doing it first. You are worth every good thing. I think, in terms of aspiring authors, I’d change that only slightly to say: trust yourself and believe in the value of your work.
This is especially true for queer writers of color; don’t give in to the temptation to believe that anything someone is offering you is good just because it’s better than not getting offered anything at all. That type of gratitude is a trap. You earned everything you have, and I promise you a straight white man is demanding twice as much (energy, attention, money, whatever) as you. Stand in that knowledge.
What is one thing most people don't know about you?
Oh, this is a tough question because I’ve lived most of my life online, so there’s not much I’ve kept close to my chest over the past decade or so that I’ve been writing on the internet. But I would say that most people who don’t know me would probably be surprised by how anxious speaking in public makes me. I think I turn it on pretty well when I need to, but it’s a process! Actually, in general, going out, being seen, being social, takes everything out of me. I have to rejuvenate for like a week after every social gathering. It’s a problem.
Where can people find you online?
Folks can find me on Twitter and Instagram @byleahjohnson or at my website www.byleahjohnson.com! I spend way too much time online, so odds are, if you need to get to me, you can find me ranting somewhere about pop culture or politics.
Leah Johnson is a writer, editor and eternal Midwesterner, currently moonlighting as a New Yorker. She is a graduate of the fiction writing MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College and currently teaches in their undergraduate writing program. Leah is a 2021 Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Fellow whose work has been published in BuzzFeed, Autostraddle, Catapult, and Electric Literature among others. Her debut YA novel, You Should See Me in a Crown was an Indies Introduce and Junior Library Guild selection. Her sophomore novel, Rise to the Sun is forthcoming from Scholastic in 2021. Visit her at byleahjohnson.com.
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