Leah Johnson burst onto the YA scene in the summer of 2020 with her acclaimed debut, You Should See Me in a Crown, which received a Stonewall Honor. She returns with Rise to the Sun, the story of Olivia and Toni, who meet on the first day of the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. Together, they race to solve scavenger hunt clues, nail onstage performances and learn to trust each other with their hopes and fears in Johnson’s ode to summer, friendship and love.
Let’s start from the outside and work our way in. What did you think the first time you saw the book’s cover art?
I full-on got teary-eyed. It’s beautiful art—bright and hopeful—reflecting Black queer girls in love, and I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Can you introduce us to Toni and Olivia? Where are they in their lives when readers first meet them?
Toni is grieving the loss of her father, who passed away eight months before the book begins. She’s hoping that returning to the music festival they both loved will bring her closer to him and give her some insight into what she should be doing with her life after high school.
Olivia has just been the victim of a pretty nasty breakup that’s left her an outcast at school and at home, and she’s hoping that one epic weekend with her best friend, Imani, will help her forget what her senior year has in store.
They’re both precious little unsure babies trying to convince the world that they have it all together. (Reader, they do not.)
Both Toni and Olivia describe feelings of distance and isolation from their peers, but they are each attending the festival with a close friend: Olivia with Imani and Toni with Peter. What do these friendships mean to them?
Their friendships are lifelines for them, but in different ways. Toni has some serious trust issues that have kept her from letting people get close to her at all. Olivia is perhaps too trusting and lets a lot of people near her but doesn’t allow anyone to really know her besides Imani. With their best friends, they’re able to be their full selves, which is a gift I think a lot of us often take for granted.
Your first book was told from a single character’s point of view, but Rise to the Sun alternates between two perspectives. What motivated that decision? Was that always the plan?
From the start, I knew that I wanted the book to be told from two points of view and also take place over a pretty tight span of time, which is an homage to some of my favorite books (Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist being at the top of that particular list) but also an effort to more intimately explore two sides of the same fear.
I believe in the power of the sonic cathedral. In building something together under those lights that I could never build on my own. And that belief has changed my life.
Both Toni and Olivia are terrified of being seen for who they really are. Digging into that more—the ways they arrived at that fear, what it takes to push past it, allowing themselves to be loved through it—felt like not only an interesting craft challenge but also a real opportunity to explore the ways all of us at our cores are both remarkably similar and wildly different.
The book’s dual perspectives enable us to see that when Olivia views one of her personality traits as a flaw, Toni actually considers it to be one of Olivia’s strengths, and vice versa. It’s a really effective way to capture how girls, especially young queer Black girls, internalize negative perceptions of themselves. Was this always something you wanted to explore in this book?
Thanks so much for saying that. I hoped it would illustrate the ways that so many of us are unable to see the best parts of ourselves because the voices that want us to be ashamed or embarrassed or small are often the loudest in our heads. But when you’re able to divorce yourself from those voices and unlearn that shame, you become your fullest self. Sometimes it takes someone else who sees that grandness in you, and is so unabashed about it that there’s no room in your head for anything else, in order for you to begin to see it yourself.
I’ve been really lucky that I’m surrounded by people who love and support me, but that love is under constant threat of buckling under the weight of a world that doesn’t want me to love myself. Black women—Black girls in particular—are expected to be palatable, to shrink themselves into something small and “respectable.” I wanted to buck against that in this book. Black girls should have room to be selfish, to be careless, to make mistakes and still be redeemable. Still be worthy of and capable of boundless love.
You really captured the power of live music as a communal experience during the Farmland scenes. What do the connections between artist, audience/listener and music mean to you? Do you make music yourself?
I play the ukulele pretty poorly, but I’ve always had a heart for live music. I can’t count the number of times I’ve lost myself in a crowd at a show, become family with sweaty strangers standing next to me at a concert, felt something too big to name under the stars at a music festival as I shouted lyrics at the sky. Live music has given me shelter when I needed it and shined a light on the things I wanted most to hide when I needed that, too. Not to wax too poetic about it, but I love it a great deal.
Dave Grohl wrote about this in The Atlantic last summer: “Without that audience—that screaming, sweating audience—my songs would only be sound. But together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night.” And I think that’s the whole thing. I believe in the power of the sonic cathedral. In building something together under those lights that I could never build on my own. And that belief has changed my life.
I loved the book’s dedication: “To the Black girls who have been told they’re too much and to the ones who don’t believe they’re enough: You are the world’s most beautiful song.” Who do you hope will read this book, and what do you hope they’ll take away from it?
All of my work is for Black girls who deserve to see themselves reflected in the pages of the stories they read, but this particular book is for the Black girls who have internalized shame about who they are. There’s nothing wrong with being someone who feels “too much” or loves “too hard.” It’s OK to be afraid of the future and unsure about what you want. Be loud, be foolish, be a little reckless. Be quiet, be brooding, be contemplative. You deserve to take up space, to be whoever and whatever you are, and be loved not in spite of those things but because of those things.
I once heard a writer say that you spend your whole life writing your debut novel and then just a year or two writing your second one. What was the experience of writing a second book like for you, and how was it different from your first?
I don’t know if we even have enough time for me to get into what it was like to not only draft and revise a book in a year but also to do it during a pandemic. It was a wild, impossible-seeming, deeply challenging experience. From cross-country moves, to health emergencies, to your regular case of the sophomore scaries, this book was forged in blood, sweat and tears (literal tears—so many of them!). I’m so proud of the book we were able to make, not just because of the story but also because I know how hard it was to get it done. You Should See Me in a Crown was written in a different world and, sometimes it seems, by a different person. They both come from the same heart, though—from the same desire to write Black girls in a way that is honest and funny and sometimes cringey. And that’s my North Star. The why doesn’t change, no matter where or when I’m working.
There are some super fun Easter eggs in Rise to the Sun for fans of You Should See Me in a Crown. Why did you decide to connect the worlds of the two books?
I have always been a sucker for a shared universe in an author’s work! I love it. It feels like an inside joke between me and the writer somehow, like they planted a seed just waiting for me to come along and watch it blossom. It feels less like fiction and more like a real, tangible world being built. I knew that if I ever got a chance to do that in my own books, I would do it in a heartbeat. Luckily, my editor let me get away with it.
I’ve noticed a recurring theme of competition in both of your books—prom queen challenges, scavenger hunts, music contests. Do you think of yourself as a competitive person?
Ha! Yes and no. I’ve recently gotten really into the game Catan (thanks to Brittney Morris, incredible writer and tabletop gamer extraordinaire), and I’m taking great pride in beating everybody I know at it. Apparently it is a secret gift of mine. So when it comes to Catan, watch out, I’m cutthroat. But most things? I’m just here to have a good time.
Photo of Leah Johnson courtesy of Reece T. Williams