A Conversation with Jenny Han, Author of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
Children’s and young adult author Jenny Han has a lot to be excited about. On Friday, Netflix released the film version of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson and starring Lana Condor as Lara Jean, the YA heroine that countless readers have grown to love through reading Han’s New York Times bestselling trilogy (the final book in the series Always and Forever, Lara Jean was released last year). Somewhere between hitting up movie premieres in Los Angeles and New York and going to the DMV (Authors! They’re just like us!), Jenny Han made time to speak with me about the new movie, what’s next for Lara Jean, and how Young Adult Literature has changed over the years.
EM: I was so excited to hear that your novel To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before had been made into a movie for Netflix. Tell me about that process. How did you get approached about this project, and how much were you involved in the making of this movie?
Jenny Han: It’s been several years since the process started. Will Smith’s production company Overbrook Entertainment approached us about making it into a movie, and then Awesomeness Films came on board about a year into it. The movie rights were with Sony, but then Sony wasn’t sure if they wanted to make it, but then Awesomeness came on board and said that they wanted to make it and finance it. They were excited to make the film, and Overbrook was still on board as producers, so from there everything happened really fast. Once Awesomeness was in the picture, they were small so they were pretty nimble.
I went out to set a few times during filming in Vancouver, and it was a really surreal experience for me. The first time I walked on set, I didn’t even know where I was going, and I was like, “Where am I?” It was when we were shooting in Lara Jean’s house, so it was kind of in the suburbs. It was a beautiful house, and I just saw all of this equipment and the trucks, and all of these people running around and making it happen, and I was completely bowled over. You go from writing a book in your room or in your office, and you spend all that time on your characters, but it’s pretty much just you and the book. So it was crazy to get to the movie set and see all of these people who were all trying to make the story come to life.
EM: Walking onto the set, did you feel like you were really stepping into the world of your book?
JH: I talked to the director Susan Johnson quite a bit about what I thought Lara Jean’s bedroom would look like, and I made some suggestions with the kitchen and things like that. But still, even so, when I walked into the bedroom and saw all of Lara Jean’s things and her artwork and her Nancy Drew collection and stuffed animals and clothes everywhere, it was really special.
EM: Are there any plans to adapt either of the sequels?
JH: As of now, I have no idea. I guess it depends on how people respond to this movie. If there is a desire for it, I hope that they would make it. The nice thing about the movie being released on Netflix is that it takes off some of the pressure of a traditional movie release where you have to have a really great opening weekend or you’re kind of sunk. The platform allows for a natural build of excitement.
EM: Right, movies on Netflix often go viral, where one person watches something and then tells their friends about it, and people start writing articles about it on the Internet, and it goes from there.
JH: Exactly. It’s based on word of mouth, and people sharing their excitement about something. I really love the fact that every country that has Netflix will be able to see it at the same time. I have fans in Brazil and the Philippines and Mexico where people are really excited about this movie. I’m not sure if this had been a traditional movie release whether or not those fans would have been able to watch it right away.
As someone who writes for young people, you kind of have to go where they’re at. And that’s where they are. You can watch Netflix on your phone or on your iPad or your TV.
EM: Always and Forever, Lara Jean came out about a year ago. What’s next for Lara Jean? Any thoughts about following her into college, or is this the end? Is this a trilogy, no matter what?
JH: It’s a trilogy. I think this is where I leave Lara Jean. In my mind, these characters are still out there doing their thing, but I’m no longer there to watch it happen. I don’t think it’s the end of her story. I just think it’s the end of me being there for it.
EM: Are you saying we shouldn’t expect you to be like JK Rowling where you do some sort of press release and talk about what happens to Lara Jean in college and who she marries eventually?
JH: Nah. People ask, “Well, what’s going on? Did she stay with Peter? Did they break up? Did she end up transferring schools?” And I think people’s own imaginations are just as important.
EM: Absolutely. You write middle grade and young adult books, and you also used to be a bookseller at a Children’s bookstore and a children’s librarian. What drew you to children’s books, and how did you get into writing books for young readers?
JH: Well, I came to New York to get my MFA in creative writing for young people, so then I got a job at Books of Wonder while I was working on my first book. So for me, working at a kid’s bookstore was an extension of my degree. I had to read so much to keep up with everything coming out and to be able to recommend things to customers. And I was also helping to run events and things, so you kind of get that backstage look at what it’s like to be a working author.
Then, during that time, I sold my first book, a middle grade novel called Shug, and I then got a job working part time as a school librarian, which was even more of an education because I was seeing kids every single day. I would recommend something, and then they would come back in the next day looking for something new. So I had to be reading everything, even things I wouldn’t normally pick up because I knew it’s what the kids wanted to read and I had to know whether or not it was any good. I worked the for around six years.
I loved YA my whole life, and I think I grew up during a bit of a YA renaissance. I read Christopher Pike, and I read Lois Duncan and Judy Blume and the Babysitters Club books and Sweet Valley. There was a lot.
EM: I think we’re around the same age, and I feel like when we were younger, YA was sort of coming into its own as a genre. And then I think when I was in my late teens, YA kind of blew up and became a big deal. I don’t know if you had the same experience.
JH: Yeah, I think when we were growing up, YA was sort of mass market paperback books for 4.99. There were a lot of series that would just go on forever. There were hundreds of them.
EM: Oh yeah. When I was a kid, I had a bookshelf that was just filled with nothing but Babysitters Club books.
JH: Right. There wasn’t the same kind of YA where you would have hardcover books come out, and I think that the first big shift was Harry Potter because people could wrap their minds around paying $30 for a kids’ book. Before that point, people were really used to paying $4.99 or $3.99 for a paperback. They were more disposable. I think with Harry Potter, it was like, well, yes, it makes sense to spend more money on this book. And then adults were reading them as well. It was everybody. The New York Times had to create a Children’s Bestseller List because of it. Harry Potter was dominating the list, so they had to make a separate kid’s list.
But then I think Twilight was when we saw another huge shift. I think my first book came out the same year or the year before, and I remember the space in the bookstore was quite small. And then it expanded exponentially after Twilight because the hunger for more was there. We were seeing a lot more fantasy and supernatural kinds of books coming out. And then again with The Hunger Games, we saw another huge explosion and it just keeps growing and growing. People are starting to see the value in a YA book, and they’re willing to pay for that experience.
I think that if Lois Duncan, whom I love, had been publishing books around this time, it would have been a really different career for her. She would have hardcover books, and they would have had a bigger reception.
EM: You mentioned fantasy and dystopian YA, but obviously contemporary romance is also a huge section of the Young Adult books when you walk into a bookstore. And that’s what you’ve primarily been writing. Even in those fantasy and dystopian novels, there’s usually a central romance. Why do you think romance is such a big deal for teens?
JH: I think it’s a big deal for everybody. Even with adult novels, I connect the most to the love story. I think it’s because, when you think about life, what the most important thing to you? It’s the people you love. So why wouldn’t you want to read about that? I think romance is often minimized, but it’s one of the most important relationships of your life. So, of course, writers want to explore it, and readers want to read about it.
For YA specifically, contemporary romantic books are kind of perennial. You never see big moments for romantic novels like we saw with dystopia, but romantic novels never go away either. They’re just always there, and people will continue to read them.
I think one of the big differences with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is that you rarely see a series or trilogy of contemporary romantic books. It’s usually more of a stand-alone, and I really liked being able to take my time with a character and show evolution and growth. To me, that’s the luxury of reading the book, especially more than one. You get to follow the characters and see them during different seasons of their life.
EM: On the total opposite side of the spectrum, you wrote a short story for the YA anthology My True Love Gave to Me. Are you interested in writing more short stories in the future?
JH: No, I’ve been asked to do it, and I get tempted to do it, but I always have to say no. Writing that one almost broke me. It’s so difficult to write a short story. To me, the time I spent on that short story is about equal to the time it takes me to write a novel just because you have less space and every choice is so important. Everything is so weighted. It’s difficult. I don’t think my brain works that way.
EM: So then what is next for you? Are you working on any new books now?
JH: I am working on a new YA novel now. I actually have a bunch of different ideas for things, and usually for me, I kind of dabble with things and then lock on to the one thing I’m going to do. I don’t really outline, so it’s hard for me to say what something’s going to be about, because I don’t know what it’s going to be until I’m deeply into the book. I also think there’s something to be said for self-care and being protective of what you’re working on, so you can keep your excitement to yourself about something you’re working on before the rest of the world gets to see it.
EM: Well I’m excited to hear you’re working on something, and I look forward to read it. And I’m so excited to watch this movie once it comes out on Netflix.
JH: Thanks! So nice chatting!
You can watch To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before on Netflix today. And if you still cant get enough of Lara Jean, take this quiz to find out which of the Song-Covey sisters you are.