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The Jenny Han Effect: How the YA rock star took charge of her own media empire

By Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times
Published: July 17, 2023, 6:18am

It was a hot summer day in Cousins. Jenny Han sat inside a beach house, phone in hand, splitting her attention between a million emails and texts, and the torrents of teenage life and love playing out in front of her eyes.

She watched intently, searching for nuance in the scene before her. “So much of romantic stories is about the looks people give — sneaking looks at each other, being aware of them,” she said as seabirds glided in the distance, the occasional motorboat rumbled across the water and characters she dreamed up sprang to life on playback monitors.

Han wasn’t in the fictional Cousins Beach. It wasn’t summer. On this balmy October morning, the author-turned-showrunner was on set in Wilmington, North Carolina, bringing the second season of her Prime Video series adaptation “ The Summer I Turned Pretty “ down the home stretch.

Last June, the first season of the show debuted at No. 1 on the streaming service; to date the hashtag #thesummeriturnedpretty has drawn 6.8 billion views on TikTok, according to Prime Video. Overnight, the cast became starsonsocial media and the success of the series sent Han’s novels back to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. “Summer” also marked a milestone for Han, who was already considered a rock star in the world of young adult literature — she made the transition from bestselling novelist to successful series creator.

Han, 42, has been in building mode, starting her own production company, Jenny Kissed Me, and launching multiple streaming franchises from her novels in the last five years: Netflix’s “ To All the Boys “ films, which she executive produced; “ XO, Kitty,” a spinoff series also on Netflix that she created and co-showran alongside Sascha Rothchild; and “Summer,” which she also created and co-showruns in its second season with Sarah Kucserka. It returns to Prime Video on July 14.

Han smiled as the stars of the series, Lola Tung, Sean Kaufman, Gavin Casalegno and Christopher Briney, drifted in and out of the hydrangea-lined home that serves as the show’s primary set. Outside, actors Rachel Blanchard and Jackie Chung worked with executive producer and director Megan Griffiths, who is among the all-female lineup of directors for this season, including Zoe R. Cassavetes, Isabel Sandoval and Sophia Takal, that Han recruited from the indie film and TV world.

Enjoying the moment amid all the bustle, she reflected on the end of the shoot that was on the horizon. “It’s been very fertile,” said Han, who signed an overall television and film deal with Amazon Studios last year. “I’m having a lot of ideas and I’m thinking about the future. But right now, I’m very focused on landing this plane.”

‘No detail is ever too small’

Han always knew that she wanted to tell stories. She’d fill notebooks with them growing up in suburban Richmond, Virginia, the eldest daughter of Korean immigrant parents. Like Lara Jean Song Covey, the teen heroine of her 2014 novel “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” she liked baking and books and penning fanfic of herself and her friends. She considered being a librarian or a teacher before pursuing an MFA in creative writing with her parents’ blessing. “I’ve always felt confident about being a writer, and the adults in my life have always really instilled that,” she said.

Han has a way of evoking nostalgia and loading big emotion into the smallest of totems: Sharing Yakult drinks and Twizzler straws. A stuffed polar bear bringing the memory of a childhood crush flooding back. The meaning of infinity. The meaning of a hatbox. The meaning of forever.

“No detail is ever too small for Jenny,” said her longtime literary agent, Emily van Beek. “Every detail really matters.”

“She has a clear creative vision and that’s articulated on the page in her novels, but she also has a very clear aesthetic understanding of the world of her characters,” said Han’s former editor Zareen Jaffery. Pick up a copy of Han’s novel sequel “Always and Forever, Lara Jean” and you might spy the framed print of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann’s “ Romeo + Juliet “ she brought to the cover shoot.

It used to hang in her childhood bedroom. Now it lives in her home office in Brooklyn, clipped from her hometown newspaper the year she turned 16. “We had to get legal clearance for that, and it’s completely obscured — if you know it’s there, you can see Leo’s face, just barely,” said Jaffery, now executive editor at Kokila. “But it was an important part of Lara Jean’s character, part of her lived-in world.”

“She has this remarkable and unique ability to deep dive down memory lane and resurface in such authentic detail the memories and experiences of those milestone firsts that we all go through, and she brings that back up to the surface in such an immediate way,” said Van Beek, who inked Han’s first sale amid the 2000s YA boom with 2006’s “Shug,” about a 12-year-old girl coming of age in the South.

Han was still in grad school when she got the call that her first novel was going to be published. “I was in my dorm room making macaroni and cheese on an illegal hot plate,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, my noodles are going to get soft because they were getting overcooked!’ I was elated. I was in total shock.”

Her push into teen-centric YA in 2009 established her staying power with “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” the first book in a trilogy centered around Isabel “Belly” Conklin, a girl on the cusp of 16 navigating a love triangle between brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher. Publisher Justin Chanda saw its breakout potential when everyone in the Simon & Schuster office picked a side in Belly’s love life after reading the first few chapters. “We were already that invested,” Chanda said.

When the Prime Video series premiered last summer, the books shot back to the top of the NYT bestseller list and have stayed there ever since. Online debates rage over which “team” fans are on, with BookTok fanning the viral flames and obsessing over swoon-worthy moments. “I think a successful love triangle is one where you feel that a part of you is heartbroken, no matter what,” Han said, acknowledging that it means you can never make everyone happy.

Simon & Schuster saw a pop in book sales when the first “To All the Boys” movie debuted on Netflix in 2018, but no one was ready for how robust Gen Z’s demand for “Summer” would be. Ahead of its premiere, Taylor Swiftshared a trailer featuring her re-recorded song “This Love (Taylor’s Version)” on social media. “Suddenly we were selling tens of thousands a week in paperback, and it didn’t let up,” Chanda said. To date, Han’s Simon & Schuster titles have sold 8 million copies, 4.5 million of which are “Summer” books.

It’s Jenny’s world

Even a quiet day on set sees Han in constant motion, texting and FaceTiming with her Season 2 co-showrunner Kucserka: watching takes, tweaking scripts, making calls on everything from tie-in merch to dialogue — or finding the exact moment in a song when lyrics match the emotional beats of important scenes from the books.

The new season packs in these “tentpole moments” Han knows her readers are excited for as it picks up a year later, as Belly (Tung) revisits the shattering events that followed her first-season spark with longtime crush Conrad (Briney). As a multigenerational drama, Han and the show’s writers also expand the world of “Summer” with new characters and scenarios, reserving the potential for surprise. “People think they want exactly what’s in the book, but I think that there’s real fun in the not knowing too,” she teased.

Today Han and the production team mull whether they should get ahead of a potential weather snafu and swap an on-location moment pulled from Book 2 with an interior soundstage scene planned for the following day. She watches Griffiths direct a scene in which Briney and Kaufman branch off from the group for a heart-to-heart. Then she heads down to the dock to oversee photos of the “Summer” kids in character and later, finalizes weekend plans to host a murder mystery dinner for her cast.

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“We’re both Virgos, so we are both incredibly organized people,” Kucserka says. “She has this natural instinct for how to run a ship. And it’s amazing to see because I’ve seen plenty of folks who come in from a different world and they are like, ‘What is this? How does this work?’ And she really has that natural instinct for it.”

In some ways, producing feels like an extension of the tools Han employed as an author, taking a stake in her own marketing strategies and building a direct bridge to her readership. When she made the tough decision to skip the “XO, Kitty” premiere in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America strike, she filmed a video explaining why to her fans. She frequently fields questions from her 1.3 million Instagram followers, offering peeks into TV production, her creative choices and her close rapport with the actors. No one knows the Jenny Han universe and her constituents like Jenny Han does.

Case in point: the Herculean feat of landing five surprise Swift tunes for “Summer’s” first season, which shot Swift’s 2019 album “Lover” back to the Billboard Top 40 charts three years after its original release.

“The Taylor moment was one of the most special things,” said Han, who pitched to Amazon Studios execs the exact way Swift’s “ The Way I Loved You (Taylor’s Version) “ kicks in during the Season 1 finale. “I was like, ‘And then he stands up and we hear, duh duh duh duh … .’ I was listening to ‘ Fearless ‘ the album when I was writing the second and third books, and the fans have always said, ‘Can you please put a Taylor song in?’ So I was really excited to give them that gift.”

The show’s inclusion of three songs from “Lover” — “Cruel Summer,” “False God” and “Lover” — helped boost the album by nearly 4 million streams in its first two weeks, while other featured artists’ music saw as much as a 6,000% spike in song sales, per Variety. Swift’s wistfully on-theme “ August “ and “ Back to December (Taylor’s Version),” heard in the second-season trailers, already have fans speculating what Swift tracks might make their way into the new season.

It was that instinct for what her fans love and the comprehensiveness of her vision that led Han to push for greater control after the first “To All the Boys” film. “For an author, it’s not the most comfortable of positions to be in, to have to stand your ground in that way,” she said.

Now on “Summer,” Han is both boss and living, breathing show bible. Tung, who made her acting debut in the role and this season takes Belly further in determining what her heart wants and deserves, says that trust goes both ways. “You can tell how much she cares about every single choice,” Tung said. “But what’s lovely too is she is so open to talking with us about those creative decisions and hearing our input.”

“She knows exactly what it looks like and how it feels — it’s her world and she knows it so well,” said Briney, who plays Conrad. “If Jenny’s happy, it gives me permission to be happy and move on [from a scene]. Because Jenny would not move on if she wasn’t happy.”

Fighting for her heroines

Attempts had been made to adapt “Summer” over the years, but Han was firm that she wanted to write and produce it herself, and she wanted to cast an Asian American lead as Belly.

Although “Shug” felt personal in other ways, it wasn’t until the first “To All the Boys” book in 2014 that Han wrote an explicitly Asian solo protagonist in a romantic comedy whose drama did not hinge on her ethnicity. Yet even as it was being adapted a few years later, Han encountered resistance: “There were so many times when I was asked about casting, ‘Why does she have to be Asian if there’s nothing in there about her being Asian?’”

Lana Condor won the role in the Awesomeness Films and Overbrook Entertainment film as Lara Jean, a bookish teen who makes a fake dating pact with a jock, and saw her career skyrocket alongside co-star Noah Centineo. Han has now launched three streaming franchises anchored by young Asian American women. “I had to say no to a lot of people. But we made it and Netflix bought it, and from there it was, let’s keep going.”

Anna Cathcart is a veteran of four Han projects that she says “changed my life.” Cast as Lara Jean’s precocious sister Kitty in 2018’s “To All the Boys” at 14, she appeared in two sequels before stepping up to lead “XO, Kitty” this year, a rare original film-to-series spinoff for the streamer and the first Han project not directly based on a book. The show was recently renewed for a second season.

“Jenny does such an amazing job prioritizing diversity, and it has such a clear impact on the stories she creates,” Cathcart said via email of the significance of Han helming Kitty’s continuing story. “In ‘XO, Kitty,’ specifically, there are so many different storylines and types of characters, that there is something for everyone to relate to and see themselves in. That’s something that is so important to me as well, so being a part of a project that holds that as a core value means a lot.”

‘Summer’ dreams

Across her 11 novels, including the “Burn for Burn” trilogy co-authored with Siobhan Vivian, themes recur: first love, first heartbreak, the agonies and joys of young women taking their first stabs at adulthood. “I wish for young people specifically to be able to have more grace for themselves and to forgive themselves for those moments,” Han said. “It’s just part of being a messy human. It’s kind of the beauty of it. I think part of my process is that writing it down and sharing it makes it less scary. Because if you know that everybody has those moments, maybe you feel less alone.”

“She’s really honoring a younger version of herself,” offers author and journalist Mary H.K. Choi, who became friends with Han in 2017 before the release of her own debut novel, “Emergency Contact.” “She feels things really deeply, and I think that too makes her uniquely qualified to speak on the behalf of teens. They’re like one throbbing, raw nerve navigating the world and loving for the first time, getting disappointed really badly. And I think she has that hyper awareness and hyper sensitivity in her own life.”

The uncertainty of an industry striking and in crisis, of course, now looms overhead for film and TV creatives, even as “Summer’s” second season is set to make a stir when it drops its first three episodes at once. Still, Han has decided to take a next step, a natural progression in her evolution as a storyteller: “I’m going to direct an episode, if and when we get a third season,” she says.

As someone who has always been eager to top her latest achievement, she has more recently sat with the thought of what, in her latest chapter of media empire-building, has brought her real satisfaction. Helping rising actors launch their careers brings her joy. The prospect of empowering other authors and writers to adapt their stories onscreen is also exciting.

But when she really searches for that feeling of satisfaction, she goes back to last summer. “I think that what makes me really happy is the making of it, being there in the moment on set when things are going well and it’s all coming together as a picture in my head, and you have a good day,” says Han.

But there are many more stories to tell, she reminds. For her, it’s only the beginning.

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