Jenny Han Hopes You Find Comfort in the Fantasy of To All the Boys

When To All the Boys: Always and Forever comes out tomorrow, it will herald the end of an era: The third installment of Lara Jean Covey and Peter Kavinsky’s love story will see the high school sweethearts off to college—and, possibly, the end of their relationship. (Or is it? You’ll have to tune in to find out.) For most viewers, it’ll be sad enough to say goodbye to the Netflix trilogy that has kept us swooning for the past three years now. For fans of the books, though, the release of the third film marks a bittersweet end to an almost seven-year relationship with Lara Jean, who first captured readers’ hearts when Jenny Han’s book To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was published in 2014.

But even with the end of To All the Boys upon us, it seems that this is just the beginning of Han’s time in Hollywood. On Monday, Amazon announced that it had ordered a TV adaptation of Han’s earlier YA series The Summer I Turned Pretty. (If you love Lara Jean, you’re sure to adore Isabel “Belly” Conklin.) And with several other projects on the horizon—including a to-die-for Shonda Rimes collab—we have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more of Han’s work on our screens in the years to come.

Still, Han knows how her many fans are feeling. After all, she’s been saying farewell to Lara Jean for almost as long as we’ve known the Coveys. “I said goodbye when I wrote the first book, and then I decided to do two, and that was going to be it,” she says, thinking back on the near-decade she’s spent immersed in the world of To All the Boys. “We didn’t know we were going to get to do three of the films either.” So to finally come to the end of Lara Jean’s journey is sad, but it’s exciting too: “We’re so excited to finally share this movie with the fans, because we shot two and three back-to-back, so it feels like a long time ago since we finished it. It’s really quite sweet to come full circle together.”

The back-to-back shooting schedule Han’s referring to took place in the summer of 2019, when the idea of releasing the final installment in the middle of a global pandemic would have sounded like science fiction. In a way, though, that just makes the final product even more winsome, like a cinematic time capsule of the world we left behind (and will hopefully see again soon). In between reflections on the YA landscape and stories about what it was like to follow Lara Jean from page to screen, Han pauses to reflect on the timing of it all. “I hope that it can be a kind of balm for the fans, because it’s been a really hard year,” she says. After watching Always and Forever, we have a feeling her wish is going to come true.

How involved were you in adapting To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before into the first film? How has your role changed since then?

I definitely became more involved as we went on. With the first film, I read the script and I gave notes on that, and I probably was most active in talking about the costumes and making sure they got the look of it right. I would say I became more involved on the subsequent films, so I was on set for much of the second one, and then for the third one, I was in New York and Korea.

When it comes to adapting a story for film, I think being able to understand what’s being asked of you and what you offer to the process is really important, and for me, I’ve always seen it as being the emissary: being the ambassador of the fans and understanding what they want. I’ve been with these books for a long time, so I understand what it is that readers like about them, and I wanted to make sure that that was still present in the movie. It was less important to me to have details correct about setting and more about the feeling that you get when you see the film, which is, I hope, a cozy and warm feeling that makes you feel really hopeful.

Does that have anything to do with why the films were relocated to Portland from the books’ setting of Charlottesville, Virginia?

For the first film, that was really a decision based on the fact that they were gonna film in Vancouver, and Vancouver and Portland look pretty similar but Virginia does not. [Laughs.] I would say that’s a decision that ricocheted. It was made before the filmmakers realized there would be more films. In the books, [wanting to go to] UVA makes a lot of sense for Lara Jean, because it’s her hometown, and she always imagined that she would stay close to home and be doing her laundry on the weekends. When the film was moved to Portland, we had to kind of reassess what that was going to look like, because lacrosse, apparently, is not really a West Coast thing. It’s a lot more popular on the East Coast.

You grew up in Richmond, Virginia, but now you live in New York. Why did you decide to set the books in Charlottesville in the first place?

I think for me, it’s a couple of things. One, I tend to write stories about teenagers who feel a bit on the outside and feel some sense of alienation and loneliness. So much of the teenage experience is about feeling like you’re the only one going through something, and setting To All the Boys in a smallish Virginia town really highlighted Lara Jean’s sense of loneliness. In the books, they’re one of the only Asian families in the town, and the fact that her mom is not there to kind of be that anchor for her only underlines that experience. I think that it’s a very different experience to grow up in a big city and be in a really diverse place with tons of different kinds of kids and people who are from the same backgrounds as you all sort of mixed together.

And I think it’s partly because just for me, creatively, I find a lot of inspiration in the suburbs and smaller towns. I think city kids are in some ways more sophisticated just because of all the culture they have access to. You can walk places and see so many different kinds of people. For me, growing up in the suburbs, you couldn’t go anywhere if you didn’t have a ride—so much was based on whether you could get a ride somewhere and on being more reliant on your parents for a while.

What is it about YA that keeps you going back to that genre and those readers?

There’s something very compelling about the immediacy and urgency of adolescence. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to first times and to how intense all of those emotions can feel in the moment. What’s interesting for me is being able to honor that and treat it with respect, and not think that because it’s about young people, it’s somehow less important of an experience.

But I also just love the readership. It’s really moving to get a note from a young person who says, “Your book was the first book that I read on my own,” or, “Your book made me love reading.” I feel very honored to hold that spot, because I remember [who those authors were for me], and it’s really an honor. I’ve read a lot of books in my day, and the ones that have stuck with me are the ones that I read as a young person—you know, when you are first discovering that love of reading. With adult readers, you don’t get to be somebody’s first time they fall in love with reading in the same way. So that’s something that will never get old for me: for people to find that passion for books through reading one of mine.

The landscape is also very different than it was in 2006 in terms of what stories get to be told. For example, #ownvoices was not a thing back then. Now, people are clamoring for a diverse array of stories, and I think in large part that is because books like yours have shown that readers want that.

Yeah. When I was first starting out, the only times you saw books about people of color were when the whole story was about being a person of color, and it was really centered around the struggle of coming to terms with your identity. I wasn’t really interested in writing that book in that moment, and I don’t think people realize how truly difficult it was 15 years ago to be trying to make a living and also tell the stories that you wanted to tell. There have certainly been times when I would hear from people that readers aren’t really interested in reading books about Asian people. For me, I’ve tried to build my career in a way that lets me do whatever I want to do by gaining trust of readers and being able to prove to the industry that there is a market for it. People do want to read books about people that don’t look like them; you just have to make that available to them.

I don’t think people realize how fast it has changed. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was the first YA book with an Asian person on the cover to hit the New York Times best-seller list, and that was in 2014. That’s very recent. So, yeah, there’s been really big movement in the past few years, but it’s been a long road for those of us who have been in the industry for a while.

What other YA authors are you excited about right now? I saw that you tweeted about Mary H.K. Choi’s new book, Yolk, the other day.

Yes, Mary H.K. Choi is great. Nic Stone is really putting out work that speaks to young people and meeting them where they’re at, and I think that’s really exciting. Angie Thomas has had a really astronomical kind of success, she’s been going up like a comet, and I think that’s because the stories that she writes really speak to young people. And I would say Jason Reynolds is also a really exciting voice. He’s been writing books for a while now, and I think he’s really found a lot of success with young readers, as well as adult readers.

That’s something that will never get old for me: for people to find that passion for books through reading one of mine.

What else are you working on right now?

I am doing some screenwriting. I am doing an episode of Shonda Rimes’s anthology series about love for Netflix. I am also working on an adult novel, and I’m working on a YA novel that I’ve had kind of on my back burner for many years. And I have something else, I’m just not allowed to say it yet.

Right, first things first. I think people are really happy to see Lara Jean again, even if this is going to be the last time.

I hope so. When the trailer dropped, I saw people tweeting about it and saying this was just what they needed, and they wanted to see these characters again and feel hope and comfort. I hope the fantasy of the world can make you forget for a second that you’re maybe far from your loved ones and you haven’t been able to see them in a long time. For me, it did feel like seeing an old friend again.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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