Elise Bryant, author of the young-adult novel “Happily Ever Afters,” joined the Long Beach Public Library Foundation on Wednesday afternoon to discuss her debut novel as part of the foundation’s celebration of Library Lovers’ Month and Black History Month.
“Happily Ever Afters” follows Tessa Johnson, 16, as she navigates her new arts school in Long Beach and overcomes impostor syndrome as a writer. Bryant said she is moved to write romance novels that feature Black women and characters that look like her.
Bryant, who was raised in Southern California and moved to Long Beach during high school, is a Long Beach State alumna and majored in Africana studies before continuing on to earn her master’s degree in special education from Loyola Marymount University.
Bryant emphasized the “beautiful diversity” in the Long Beach community and how the setting felt authentic to the story and characters she was creating.
“I feel like I got the education at Cal State Long Beach that I wish I had gotten growing up,” Bryant said. “I got to learn about Black history and Black culture in a way that I wasn’t able to before.”
She opened up about feeling discouraged throughout her youth. Her favorite stories never featured Black characters. When stories did, they were only ever side characters.
Bryant spoke to the viewers about the importance of diverse narratives in literature.
“When you rarely see yourself in stories, you start to believe that, maybe, you don’t deserve to be there,” Bryant said. “I wanted to write this story about a Black girl learning to fall in love and take up space because that was the kind of story I searched for as a kid. I wanted to see girls that looked like me at the center of stories.”
Bryant emphasized the importance of celebrating Black joy and “not just our trauma.”
For almost nine years, Bryant taught special education, reading and English classes. She shared that a lot of her students would enter class “hating” books, so she took it upon herself to change that.
“It wasn’t that they hated reading, they just hated reading boring books or books that didn’t reflect them and their lives,” Bryant said. “Through finding all these different books for my students that they would actually enjoy reading, I saw the power that narratives that reflected them had to change their entire outlook on books.”
One of the audience members, a student, asked who the character Tessa Johnson was based off of.
“She’s based a lot on me,” Bryant said. “She isn’t exactly me but there’s a lot of me in the character Tessa.”
Bryant said that she and Tessa share the same journey of arts school, impostor syndrome and wanting to see themselves represented in stories.
“Happily Ever Afters” also focuses on the relationship between Tessa and her brother, Miles.
According to Bryant, this was inspired by her own relationship with her brother. She shares how she often got frustrated seeing people with disabilities being used as plot points rather than fully realized characters.
“His disability does impact their life, they have their issues because of that,” Bryant said. “But ultimately, his disability is not at the center of the relationship but [rather] their love for each other.”
At the time Bryant wrote her book, she was still teaching and raising her daughters. But, she still found that through her exhaustion the process was “a joy.”
“We put down art that may be centered around girls or women as not as important,” Bryant said. “I just want readers to know that those stories and those voices are just as important and just as necessary for our world.”
Bryant said she is excited to keep writing books about the Black experience. Her next book, which will be a companion novel to “Happily Ever Afters,” will be released in January 2022.
“Happily Ever Afters,” is available at Bel Canto Books in Long Beach and online retailers including Amazon.