Young Queens: The Intertwined Lives of Catherine de’ Medici, Elisabeth de Valois and Mary, Queen of Scots by Leah Redmond Chang, weaves the personal stories of these three queens into one, revealing their hopes, dreams, desires and regrets in a time when even the most powerful women lived at the mercy of the state.

Longlisted for the 2024 Women’s Prize for Non-Fiction, judge Kamila Shamsie said “Read this book if you’re interested in power, in family, in extraordinary women, or if you just want a stonking good read.”

To find out more about the book we spoke to Leah about her writing, research and current reads.

Young Queens

by Leah Redmond Chang

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Describe your book in one sentence as if you were telling a friend.

Young Queens is a narrative history that shows how queens lived at the mercy of the state and paid a price for their power – because they were women.

Did you have any revelation moments when writing your book? When the narrative and your objectives all fell into place?

One moment stands out to me: when I read the last letter that Mary, Queen of Scots wrote to her childhood friend, Elisabeth de Valois. When Mary writes that letter, she is already imprisoned in England. She asks Elisabeth to help her and reminisces about their early friendship in France. What she doesn’t realize is that Elisabeth is already dead.

There is something so intimate about that letter and so tragic. Mary has lost her throne in part because she is a woman, and Elisabeth has died because her fragile body couldn’t handle childbirth, which is the queen’s most important job. As it was, despite their former friendship, Elisabeth wouldn’t have helped Mary because her mother had already made sure her loyalties lay elsewhere. But Mary doesn’t know that. She thought they were still friends.

Everything about Mary’s letter encapsulates the price of power for women. I think I wrote Young Queens in part to understand the conditions that generated that one letter.

What is the one thing you’d like a reader to take away from reading your book?

Being a queen was a fundamentally embodied experience – royal women were defined, valued, and politicized through their bodies. This isn’t because of their crowns; it’s because of their gender. Being a woman has been an embodied experience in nearly every time and place, including our own. So while the circumstances in Young Queens are specific to sixteenth-century royalty, I want readers to ask themselves – how much has changed for women and how much has stayed the same?

Which other female non-fiction writers inspire you and why? Any particular title?

There are so many writers, past and present. How do you narrow it down to a single one? There are two, however, that I can name right away. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Natalie Zemon Davis and The Return of Martin Guerre, which I first read early in my graduate studies. It was so scholarly yet so accessible, an easy read that posed such thought-provoking questions. It was relatively short, yet it immersed me in an entirely different world from the past. I felt I knew and understood the people who lived in that world. And despite its title, Martin Guerre is about a woman – an illiterate peasant woman in the south of France who makes a single choice that changes the trajectory of her life. That the story of one woman in the archives could also reveal something tremendously important about gender and culture in the past was a revelation to me. There was this tension between the micro and the macro. Davis looked at single legal case to think about big ideas. I had never read a book quite like The Return of Martin Guerre. I still haven’t.

Another author whose work captivates me is Annette Gordon-Reed. In the Hemingses of Monticello she makes Sally Hemings come alive. I can practically see Sally Hemings walking down the streets of Paris or wandering the gardens of Monticello. And yet, Sally was an enslaved woman, and there is little archival evidence about her. How does Gordon-Reed do it? To write that book she had to be part historian, part storyteller, part detective. The story she tells about Sally and her family is so rich that it is shocking we didn’t know it before. But it is Gordon-Reed’s scholarship and craft that lends the story its richness and urgency.

What is the best piece of writing advice you have ever received?

To be a writer you must first show up at your desk.

What book is currently on your nightstand?

I am reading King, Jonathan Eig’s biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the second time. It’s astounding. Eig had access to recently declassified FBI files, so a lot of the material is new. He shows us the very human and flawed Martin Luther King, Jr., while doing nothing to diminish the legacy of his leadership in the American civil rights movement; he simply makes us see the man behind the legend. What I love, too, about Eig’s book is his treatment of the women in Dr. King’s life, especially his wife Coretta. By the end of the book, you realize how vital women were to the civil rights movement, and how they wanted a greater role but were denied. It’s an important part of the story, and Eig really brings that out.