Best-selling young adult author Leah Johnson published her first novel and finished writing her second in 2020, amid the COVID-19 lockdown that brought her back home to Indiana from Brooklyn.
“I got to experience this journey almost entirely in quarantine with my parents,” Johnson says. “All of my book events were in my childhood bedroom.”
After a wildly successful debut with You Should See Me in a Crown, her new novel, Rise to the Sun, hits shelves this month. Titled after an Alabama Shakes song, it’s set at fictional summer music festival “Farmland” in Georgia. Johnson, a graduate of Ben Davis High School and Indiana University, has since returned to New York; she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, where she got her MFA. But Indiana remains on her mind.
“One thing I had to square in my adult life is that even when I’m not writing about Indiana, I’m writing about Indiana,” Johnson says. “Even when I’m not writing about being Black, I’m writing about being Black.”
Most music festivals tend to be predominantly white spaces, and Johnson wanted to change the narrative in Rise to the Sun. The novel is told from the alternating points of view of Olivia and Toni, two queer Black young women who fall for each other, quite literally, in a meet-cute that involves a face plant. The festival is imperiled by gunfire, followed by panic and confusion. Johnson wanted to recreate the fun of the event, while also acknowledging how gun violence in America keeps people looking over their shoulder.
Farmland is loosely based on the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, which Johnson attends yearly with her best friend. The novel’s characters travel to the festival from Indiana, and are linked to characters in Johnson’s first novel. “That’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid,” Johnson says of her interconnected books. “I loved Sarah Dessen, whose books had related characters and bands.”
Rise to the Sun is peppered with pop culture references, which were common in her first novel as well. Writing and publishing the latter changed Johnson’s life. “I owe so much to the book,” she says. “Part of the reason I felt safe to come out was the overwhelming support for it.”
Her next project is a middle-grade series about a girl who, after an earthquake, discovers she can bring things back to life with her touch. Publishers Weekly reported that Disney Hyperion bought the first two books in the series for seven figures.
“My people don’t come from a lot,” Johnson says. “My grandmother is literally from a family of sharecroppers. I’m really thrilled. Not to be too Hamilton about it, but I hope it’s a movement, not a moment.”