Jenny Han’s YA books attract Hollywood’s attention

July 1, 2014

The New York Times best-selling author recently released her 10th book, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” Two previous books, “Burn for Burn” and “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” have been optioned for television.

Jen Han

Jenny Han

By Julie Carlson

Korean American young adult author Jenny Han, 33, is already up to writing her 11th book, of which 10 have been published.

It takes a thick skin and perseverance to get a novel published, and she never gave up on her dream of being a writer.

It’s a profession that takes time, effort and constant battles with an inner critic. For many people, including Han, aspirations of seeing their name in print or their novel in bookstores seems like shooting for the moon.

“I’d never met a working writer before, and the only writers I knew of were from books and movies,” Han recalls. “There’s risk in choosing the arts — there aren’t any guarantees that you’ll be able to make a living at it, MFA (master of fine arts) or no.”

Even while taking a class on children’s writing in college, she still thought her dream was too far out of reach. And her thoughts eventually turned to becoming a children’s book editor or librarian. Any job in the world of children’s literature suited her.

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Cover of Jenny Han’s latest book. (Courtesy of Jenny Han)

Still, Han had started writing while she was growing up in Richmond, Virginia. During those times, stories were always in her vivid imagination and just flowed onto paper. As a middle-schooler and teenager, Han wrote about anything that captured her interest.

She’s always had a ‘dessert first’ policy, writing about what excited her first. While most girls who enjoy penning stories, write of princesses and young love, Han delved into darker topics like divorce and leukemia, which she wasn’t even familiar with.

“Anything tragic because those were the interesting ones,” Han says. “For little kids, it’s fun to dream and imagine what a life very unlike yours is like. I even tried my hand at horror, too.”

She lived in a small, tight-knit Korean American community. Her parents, originally from Busan, South Korea, immigrated to the U.S. during the late 1970s. With relatives already living in Virginia, they decide to settle there, too. Although there weren’t many Korean American kids at her elementary school, she got to hang out with her Korean friends every Sunday at church. She also attended Korean school every Saturday up through high school.

“I think it gave me a tremendous amount of pride and also support,” Han says of her Richmond roots. “I think Koreans are innately proud of Korean culture and fellow Koreans’ success. When I have a book signing in Richmond, the whole Korean community shows up for me and cheers me on.”

From high school, Han went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a double minor in English and criminal justice from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, writing was still on her brain.

She began working on her first novel for young readers called “Shug,” about a girl named Annemarie Wilcox and her adventures in junior high school.

While finishing up her book, Han spent a year at home, studying for and applying to grad school. Her first choice was The New School University in New York. The liberal arts school, located in artistic Greenwich Village, was a perfect fit for Han.

As for “Shug,” the children’s writing class paid off. Her path to publication has definitely been a charmed one.

“In graduate school, my workshop teacher loved ‘Shug’ and called me up the week I submitted it to the class. She told me I should submit it to her agent,” Han says. “I did, and when we went out with the manuscript, it sold at auction.”

With “Shug,” Han landed on the moon.

She continued to focus on her writing career. Her next book, “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” about summer crushes and breaking hearts, landed her on the New York Times Bestseller list. 

What does Han like best about writing for teens?

“I think it’s a fascinating time to be alive, so many firsts,” Han says. “But one challenge of writing for teens is, I think teens can sniff out inauthenticity so quickly. You have to be willing to lay yourself bare and be real as a writer. There are no shortcuts.”

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Jenny Han, right, and her best friend Siobhan Vivian co-authored “Burn for Burn.” (Courtesy of Jenny Han)

While at the New School, Han met fellow writer Siobhan Vivian, who also writes contemporary teen fiction. They found out they lived around the corner from each other and began meeting for writing dates.

“She’s my best friend, and she even traveled to Korea with me last spring to meet my family and see the country,” Han says.

In 2012, Han shot over the moon when the duo co-authored a teen revenge novel, “Burn for Burn,” about three girls getting back at all the boys who have done them wrong.

The series has produced two more books: “Fire with Fire” last year, and “Ashes for Ashes,” due out this fall.

Fans have eaten up the twisted series which digs back into those dark places Han used to write, and Hollywood has even come calling. “Burn for Burn” has been optioned for television by Barry Josephson Entertainment, and “The Summer I Turned Pretty” has also been optioned by Lionsgate Television.

But Han is taking this all in stride. 

“It’s certainly exciting,” she says. “Your book being optioned is only the first of many hurdles, and so few things ever get made. If it ever did, it would be a dream come true!”

Her latest book, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” is a touching and inspiring novel about a Korean American girl named Lara Jean Song Covey who lives in Virginia with her siblings and widowed father.

Lara Jean writes letters to the five boys she’s loved and keeps them in a hat box. The letters are for her eyes only, for her to find closure and peace, almost like diaries. But when the letters are mailed, Lara Jean’s world turns upside down.

Han came up with the idea through her own experiences of writing love letters and sealing them up in a hat box.

“I think she’s a big of a throwback kind of girl,” Han says of her new character. “Someone who’s very content staying home baking and hanging out with her sisters and dad. She’s not the girl who was at every party in high school, and she’s fine with that. I think there are a lot of girls like Lara Jean.”

Han is currently working on the sequel, “P.S. I Still Love You,” and an illustrated chapter book about a very tiny princess.

When she’s not tolling away the hours writing or book touring, Han enjoys spending time in Brooklyn Heights where she lives. She visits Koreatown in Manhattan for her grocery shopping, eats ssamgyupsal and patbingoo at local restaurants and belts out tunes at karaoke.

Han is also a big K-drama fan. Some of her faves include “Answer Me 1997,” “What Happened in Bali” and “Boys Over Flowers.”

“I feel immense pride to see Korea represented and gaining recognition. It’s such a small country but it has made a huge cultural impact all over the world,” Han says of the rise in popularity of Korean culture and entertainment.

As for her dream of being a professional writer, Han says, “It’s been 10 years now since I sold my first book, and I’m very grateful to still be here, doing what I love and to be so supported by friends, family and fans. It’s amazing!”


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