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You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson — book review

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“Maybe things don’t need to be exactly as I’ve imagined them. Like maybe in this universe I’ve suddenly found myself in, things could be different. I could be different.”

You Should See Me in a Crown is an incredibly thoughtful and wholesome YA book. Liz’s first person narration won my heart within the very first pages. Leah Johnson’s simple yet engaging prose perfectly conveyed Liz’s perspective. Liz is in many respects a regular ‘awkward’ teen who is a dedicate student and friend, a good older sister and a responsible niece. But Liz has to contend with a lot more challenges, from her mother’s death to her family’s financial troubles. She’s also black, queer, and has anxiety, and is often made to feel like an outlier at her high school (which is mostly attended by rich white kids). Understandably, she’s eager to leave her small-town to attend the exclusive Pennington College School of Music.

“Music is something I understand—the notes are a thing that I can always bend to my will.”

Readers quickly get how and why music is everything for Liz. To attend Pennington she has to win their music scholarship…but she doesn’t. Not wanting her grandparents to sell their house, Liz’s brother convinces her to compete for the title of prom queen as their high school endows the king&queen with large checks. Although there is nothing Liz hates more than being in the spotlight, she finds herself campaigning for prom queen.

“This whole race is set up to mimic some twisted fairy tale. The queen is supposed to be the best among us: the smartest, the most beautiful, the worthiest. But the people who win are rarely the people who deserve it. Like with any monarchy, they’re just the closest to the top. You don’t earn queen; you inherit it.”

Winning other students’ votes isn’t easy, especially when she’s competing with the most popular girls in her school. In the stressful weeks to follow Liz reconnects with an old friend (some great male/female solidarity here) while her relationship to her controlling best friend becomes frayed. Also, she falls for the cute new girl in her school, Mack.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales and love at first sight and all that, but for just a second, I think this girl and those eyes and the way her freckles dot the entire expanse of her face are cute enough to make a believer out of me.”

While on paper the story might not scream originality, Johnson’s novel is far from predictable or superficial. Girls that may initially strike us as little more than the queen bee’s cronies, straight out of Mean Girls, may not be as passive or stupid as they might first appear. Liz herself finds herself gaining self-assurance.
As much as I liked following Liz’s campaign and witnessing her character growth, the thing I most loved about this book was its romance. Although the relationship between Liz and Mack doesn’t take the centerstage, it does underline much of the narrative. Their cute and tentative flirting had me grinning like an idiot. Their romance was equal parts sweet and heart-melting.
As a non-American I was horribly fascinated by Liz’s school’s ‘prom-culture’. It seems so bizarre to me…but thanks to Liz’s narrative I could see why prom is regarded by many as ‘the event’ of their school years. The dialogues are heavy on cultural references, some of them niche, some of them downright funny, all spot-on.
The only thing I could have done without is the ‘food-fight’. I really don’t get the ‘appeal’ of these scenes…(such a huge waste of food!).
If you like YA fiction that combine romance with coming of age (set against a background of music a la Night Music), touch on contemporary social issues, and present a more realistic view of high school, you should definitely check this one out (not going to lie, Liz&Mach’s scenes alone are worth the read).

“People like us. And that feels sort of good in a way that surprises me. She’s right. High school is complicated, and the lines of demarcation that The Breakfast Club said divided us aren’t quite so clean-cut. The athletes are also the smart kids; the theater kids are also the presidents of the student council. But there’s still those outliers. The people who are everywhere but fit nowhere. People who are involved but not envied—present but imperfect—so the scrutiny pushes them out of the race.”

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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