‘Rise to the Sun’ Review: Leah Johnson’s Sophomore Novel Is a Romantic and Joyful Triumph

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Art by Alexis Franklin, design by Stephanie Yang/Scholastic Press

Leah Johnson made waves with her debut novel. Now, she’s back with the perfect swoony summer read in Rise to the Sun.

Olivia is skilled at falling in love – and maybe a little too skilled at breakups. After her most recent one, she’s determined to start anew. To do so, she brings her best friend Imani for a best friend weekend at the Farmland Music and Arts Festival. Meanwhile, Toni is about to start college but doesn’t view it as the right path. She decides to clear her head and seek direction by heading back to Farmland. When Olivia and Toni have a chance encounter, they join forces to find what they’re searching for. Soon, they realize they need each other more than they thought.

From the get-go, Johnson makes the reader ache for the return of music festivals as they once were. Not only does this set the mood for the novel, but it also establishes the importance of music for both Olivia and Toni. Beyond music, she uses alternating POV chapters to bring readers into Olivia and Toni’s minds.

First up is Olivia. Readers immediately get a sense of her personality and will find themselves pulled into the whirlwind of her love life. Johnson establishes Olivia as a person who loves openly and intensely. Despite the potential consequences, Olivia jumps right in. But Imani, Olivia’s best friend, remains a constant. The two are well-written complements. Johnson also provides insight on Olivia’s home life. Readers see the rocky relationship between Olivia and her mother and sister, and how it informs Olivia’s personality.

Next is Toni. She’s the total opposite of Olivia. Unlike Olivia, Toni fiercely guards herself from intruders. The one exception (to Toni’s chagrin) is her best friend Peter, who found his way around Toni’s defenses. Similar to Olivia, Toni struggles with the expectations her mother places on her. Toni’s deep-rooted love for live music leaps off the page. Johnson examines Toni’s grief over her father’s death with grace. She beautifully explores how live music specifically connects Toni with her father, and how it both hurts and helps her.

Rise to the Sun is a heartfelt and delightful story that absolutely sings. Johnson writes a lyrical novel that’s not afraid to bare its soul. She skillfully weaves grief and heartache with unfettered joy and love. Toni and Olivia are perfectly imperfect; they’re messy and flawed and deeply relatable in the best way. The story is unabashedly queer and bursting with romance, and Johnson continues to flaunt her mastery of the genre.  

Rise to the Sun is out now in stores and online.

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By Julia
Julia is a writer/editor/content assistant for Nerds who joined the team in 2019.
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