Tessa Johnson is a writer. The words pour out of her into romance novels that star heroines with brown skin like hers—and that feature the boys of her dreams, of course. So when Tessa and her family move to Long Beach, California, and she enrolls in a highly selective art school, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to spend hours each day honing her craft. But faced with sharing her work with other artists for the first time, Tessa’s anxiety skyrockets. Her writer’s block is so intense that, for weeks, she can’t write a single word. What if she never gets her groove back? Who is she if she’s not a writer?
When her best friend, Caroline, suggests that finding a boyfriend might jump-start her novel, Tessa zeros in on her classmate Nico, who’s model-handsome and a fellow writer. But as she pursues Nico, her friendships with Caroline and her goofy yet caring neighbor Sam begin to fall apart, and Tessa starts to suspect that she’s looking for validation in all the wrong places.
In her charming debut novel, Happily Ever Afters, Elise Bryant nimbly blends bubbly, will-they-won’t-they teen romance with a frank look at issues ranging from impostor syndrome and identity to race and mental health. Bryant treats the tough stuff with nuance and compassion through conversations among a richly drawn cast of diverse and appealing characters. From a scene in which Tessa and her new friend Lenore bond in the restroom over surprise periods, to Sam’s easy interactions with Tessa’s brother, Miles, who has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairment, to Caroline’s ability to firmly but gently draw her own boundaries, Happily Ever Afters is filled with delightful examples of strong, healthy friendships. Crucially, these friendships ultimately guide Tessa to strengthen her most important relationship: with herself.
Happily Ever Afters captures just how difficult—and rewarding—high school can be. Though the title telegraphs how her story will end, Tessa’s journey to get there is all her own.