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Leah Johnson Rises to Young-Adult Author Fame with Debut Novel

Headshot of Leah Johnson
In addition to being a successful author, Leah Johnson is a staff contributing editor for the literary magazine Catapult and a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Images courtesy of Leah Johnson and designs by Kendra Kay Creative.

The inaugural young adult (YA) pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club. A 2021 Stonewall Honor Book. One of the “Best Young Adult Books of 2020,” according to Cosmopolitan.

Since its release in June 2020, Leah Johnson’s debut novel, You Should See Me in a Crown, not only has impressed readers but the publishing industry’s top critics.

“Pitch perfect rom-com. The queer prom romance you didn’t know you needed,” Kirkus Reviews wrote.

Johnson, BAJ’16, who at the time was focused on finishing her grad school thesis at Sarah Lawrence College, says her book deal came along unexpectedly.

“I had written an essay [“How Young Adult Literature Taught Me to Love Like a White Girl”] for an outlet called Electric Literature about the lack of diversity in YA,” she explains. “The day it got published, I got contacted by a couple of editors and agents asking if I was working on anything. I signed with an agent the following week, and I sold You Should See Me in a Crown two months after I graduated.”

Readers are now anticipating her second Scholastic novel, Rise to the Sun, which will hit bookshelves in July 2021.

The IU alum is also expanding her readership to include the middle grade [genre] with a new series titled Ellie Engle Saves Herself. The first installment of the Disney-Hyperion series is slated to drop in spring 2023.

Keep reading for our Q&A with Johnson that covers everything from her favorite writing spot to the unexpected event that preceded her debut book release.

You released You Should See Me in a Crown during a turbulent time. Can you talk about that? 

Leah Johnson: There were so many ups and downs about releasing when I released. My book came out [one week] after George Floyd was killed. There was a huge conversation about race and racism in America and we were knee-deep in a global pandemic. It was a strange confluence of events that [ended up] pushing people to buy more books about Black characters and Black joy by Black authors.

Was your first instinct to delay promoting the book? 

LJ: It never occurred to me that we would delay the release or that I would in some way not talk about the book. Internally, it was a struggle for me to tap into a sense of meaning about the book. My people are dying, and I’m talking about kissing scenes. But ultimately, it came down to the fact that we deserve joy. We deserve a life free from trauma and we deserve to see those things for Black people reflected on the page.

Thank you for sharing that.

LJ: This has been the toughest year of my life professionally [and] personally. I have at many times wondered, “How do we do this? How do we keep writing books when it feels like the world is on fire?” And it all comes down to, if I’m not writing a book, what am I doing? If I’m not putting good out into the world in this way, then what contribution can I make? Some people’s contribution is working for the ACLU. Some people’s contribution is handing out water bottles at protests. And then there’s the artist, whose job is to create art that fuels us. And that is the lane that I’ve settled [in].

Leah Johnson in cap and gown with fellow grads
Johnson, far left, has been a member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority since 2015.

Was writing your second book easier than writing your first? 

LJ: Absolutely not. Every time I write a book, I feel like there’s no way I’ll be able to do it again. I think with your first book—and I mean your first book, not the book that you query agents with, not the book that gets published, the first thing you ever write—there’s no expectation on it. Now, I know more about craft, the industry, and sales. It’s like a constant interplay between the book that I write for me and the book that I write because other people are going to read it—and trying to figure out how to write through all that noise.

What inspires your book ideas? 

LJ: I want to write Black girls into all of the stories that I grew up reading and loving—stories where we get to have huge love stories and happy endings and fairytale kisses in the rain. So, I work backward from that principle almost always. The plot is shaped around those intentions.

Why did you want to write for young adults? 

LJ: There’s a certain bigness to everything that happens when you’re a teenager that has always been really exciting for me. Everything feels so huge and magnificent, even really small moments feel magical in a lot of different ways. It’s that sense of wonder and that sense of play that’s made writing for young people really fun and exciting for me. Past that, we didn’t have stories. We didn’t have a bunch of YA novels like the ones that I write now when I was growing up. Part of what I’m doing is writing back to 16-year-old me and trying to fill in those gaps in her reading experience.

You’re also making big statements with your books.

LJ: My number one goal with Rise to the Sun [was] to decenter whiteness in my work. So much of You Should See Me in a Crown is what it means to be Black when you’re surrounded by white people. But that still, in a way, frames the book in opposition to whiteness or prioritizes whiteness. I want to see Black stories pivot away from that. I’m not interested in talking about white people. I just want to talk about Black girls falling in love. So much of what it’s like to be a Black girl falling in love where I grew up is talking about the relationship that that has to whiteness.

"You Should See Me in a Crown" and "Rise to the Sun" book covers
You Should See Me in a Crown was published in June 2020. Johnson’s second young adult novel, Rise to the Sun, will be available July 6, 2021.

What has been your favorite thing about becoming an established author?

LJ: I grew up without a lot of money, so we didn’t [ever] get new books. People send me books [for free] all the time now, which is super cool. Also, having my name in conversation with the writers that I grew up reading—David Levithan, Sarah Dessen, Nicola Yoon—has been this strange, incredible experience. They are my literary heroes. These are the people who shaped the way that I understand what a love story is supposed to look like.

Was there an IU professor or a class that impacted your writing in some way?

LJ: I took audio storytelling taught by Sarah Neal-Estes. That class, which was about reporting for public radio, changed my life. It taught me narrative structure, and it taught me how to engage people with scenes and soundscapes. I’m grateful that IU gave me access to so many incredible thinkers and doers. I took my first flight ever when I was on my way to London for a summer internship [through] the journalism program. I got to experience so many incredible things and that is due entirely to the opportunities that Indiana University afforded me. I owe a lot to the people who made those things happen.

Rapid Fire with Leah

Pen and paper or Microsoft Word?

LJ: Google docs.

Where is your favorite writing spot?

LJ: The Bean on Second Avenue in New York City. I wrote the entirety of my first book [You Should See Me in a Crown] at that coffee shop.

What is your favorite writing snack?

LJ: Pepperoni straight from the package.

What time of day do you do your best work?

LJ: I often [write] between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m.

Do you listen to music or watch TV while you write?

LJ: I listen to music. Clairo, Cigarettes After Sex, The Japanese House, Christine and the Queens, and Hozier are the artists I listen to the most. It needs to be something that I can put on and mostly ignore.

What book would you like to see turned into a movie?

LJ: Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forest.

Is there a book you always recommend? 

LJ: Happily Ever After by Elise Bryant.

How do you reverse writer’s block?

LJ: I stop writing immediately. If I’m stuck, I step away from the work and go watch a movie that I really love or reread one of my comfort books. That’s almost always enough to get me back in the zone.

Who sees your manuscripts first?  

LJ: The first person to read all of my books is my best friend from childhood and the second is my little sister. I really value the opinions of people who don’t know anything about publishing because I’m not writing for the industry.

Do you have a favorite place for a writer’s retreat?

LJ: [Normally] I go to Toronto once a year and write in the city. Recently, [I rented a] Getaway cabin in Grand Junction, Mich. I’m not an outdoorsy girl, but it was a fantastic experience.

Read an excerpt from You Should See Me in a Crown.

This story is part of our IU alumni author series, Novel Ideas.

Written By

Samantha Stutsman

Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.

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