Leah Johnson’s second YA novel, RISE TO THE SUN, is a summery, dramatic, fun story that weaves serious emotional pain and challenges with a story about friendship, falling in love, and realizing one’s importance in the world. Told via alternating perspectives of the two main characters, Olivia and Toni, readers follow their blossoming romance and experience a music festival and all its adventures through the vivid descriptions and authentic, believable dialogue between the characters. Heavy topics addressed in the novel include nonconsensual sharing of private photos, gun violence, death of a parent, and the main characters spend a lot of time trying to avoid the realities of these topics. RISE TO THE SUN is a wonderful and relatable summer read.
We first meet Olivia, a Black bisexual teen who is an open-hearted, perhaps over-eager, romantic. An ex-boyfriend shared private photos and Olivia is weathering criticism from peers and anxiety about testifying, which prompts her escape to Farmland, a three-day music festival in another state. She has also told her mother she’s at a religious retreat, and she’s called on her best friend Imani to help boost her heartbroken spirit. It is Olivia’s outgoing optimism and exuberance that are both engaging and which power through the storyline. Watching Olivia grow and face her fears is a compelling and heart-warming thread throughout the novel.
Toni seems to be Olivia’s opposite. While she is a veteran of the Farmland Music Festival and knows all the ropes, her father died less than a year before the novel begins. Where Olivia seems to reach out for love all around her, Toni, a Black lesbian who rarely dates, has closed herself off to affection, believing she doesn’t deserve it. In fact, several times in the novel, Toni seems genuinely surprised that she’s feeling happiness, relaxing, and enjoying herself. Juxtaposed with Olivia’s character, it’s clear the two teens have issues to work on that are at once very different yet similar.
Both Olivia and Toni are at the festival with their best friends, Imani and Peter, respectively. Imani has been called on repeatedly to help Olivia recover from breakups, and Peter, who is Toni’s “festival friend,” helps bring her out of her very tough social shell. The interactions between the friends are believable and open up their personalities without feeling forced. The story allows for social challenges, jealousy, and competition before the group is faced with very real life crisis.
On the surface, it feels like there is too much action packed into the timeline of RISE TO THE SUN, but thanks to Leah Johnson’s steady and detailed prose, readers will lean into the characters and the story. It is a pleasure to witness the growth and hard choices made by each of the main characters. Highly recommended.