My YA Book Completely Changed My Life — And The Entire Publishing Industry

Jenny Han, the author of To All the Boys I Loved Before, reflects on one very momentous year.

Squiggly Line
Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images.
At about this time last year, the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s 2014 novel To All The Boys I Loved Before was weeks away from dropping on Netflix. Han could only imagine what the film's reception would be. Her best-selling trilogy about Lara Jean Covey’s relationship with the cocky yet lovable Peter Kavinsky already had a devoted fan following, prone to writing thousands of pages of fan fiction and buying custom Lara Jean-themed Kitchen Aid stand mixers.
Still, you can never predict the future — namely, Han never could have known her brainchild would become a sensation so explosive that Netflix did something completely out of character. The streamer, which is notoriously opaque about numbers, released concrete data: Over 85 million subscribers watched the film in its first month. To All The Boys would claim a place in the high school rom-com pantheon (alongside The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink) and launch its stars, Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, to household name-level fame. It also changed YA publishing — big time.
“Having a movie come out on Netflix is so different than having a book come into the world,” Han told Refinery29. “It’s overwhelming to have my story be known by so many people.”
To All the Boys’ massive success sparked a search for similarly kind-hearted, emotionally intelligent rom-coms within the book industry, which Publisher’s Weekly aptly named “the Han Effect.” The movie also ushered in a new era for YA literature and its relationship to films: Welcome to the age of crossover appeal. According to a study by Publisher’s Weekly, approximately 55% of YA readers are adults. To All the Boys’ 85 million viewers may reveal that the same appeal YA books hold for older readers translates to film adaptations. Young love melts old hearts. To All the Boys proves that YA novels are the new go-to source for rom-coms – and the success of 2018’s other YA book-to-movie adaptations like Love, Simon and Dumplin back it up.
Meanwhile, Han is adjusting to her new schedule, which straddles the demands of a book author and a screenwriter — and involves far more flights between New York and L.A. Her book and its Netflix adaptation may have completely changed her life, but she’s still the same highly motivated writer who has stories pouring forth from her mind. And it’s not just Condor and Centineo’s lives she’s changed. Fans everywhere were overjoyed to see a woman of colour leading a story, which led to something else Han never could have predicted: a new go-to Halloween costume.
Here, Han talks to Refinery29 about her magical, life-changing year.
Refinery29: Did you have any idea that all this would happen?
Jenny Han: “No. It was a magically warm reception that you can never even begin to dream of. I hoped it would connect with people, but I could never imagine that it would be so widely and so warmly received by so many.”
How has this whirlwind year impacted you personally?
“It’s been such a learning experience. Having a movie come out on Netflix is so different than having a book come into the world. Overnight, millions of people are watching that movie, if you’re lucky. By the end of the first month we had 85 million views. It’s overwhelming to have my story be known by so many people. Versus the book world, which is much more of an intimate space. You know all your readers, in a way, and feel like you have a relationship with them.”
Those kind of numbers don’t exist in the book world! Eighty-five million!
“No way! The average American reads, I believe, three books a year. Book reading is by its nature a more intimate experience. When you read a book, you’re not looking at your phone or going in an out of the room. You’re really focused on it. There’s something about that storytelling experience of being just you and the reader where you feel really close to them. But it’s exciting to have a wider audience as well, because so many people have come to the books.”
You were always very popular within the YA community and the book world, but the wild success of the movie has turned you into a public figure of another variety. What’s that been like? Do you ever miss the old days?
“I like the old days and the new days! I have to travel so much because of movie stuff. I was in L.A. with another writer friend, and he said, ‘Are you homesick yet for New York?’ I said no; ‘Wherever I am is wherever I am. Wherever I am feels like home.’ In that same way, I was happy before, and I’m really happy now.”
Is there a routine that you’ve relied on to keep you grounded as your life has changed?
“My skincare routines. Whenever you hear people talk about the 10-step Korean routines, you think it’ll take so much work. But the routine of it is really soothing. You’re cleaning, toning, moisturising; you’re washing the day away. It feels like you’re taking care of yourself. It’s similar to what I love about baking, which has always been a stress reliever for me. The routine of all these steps and a finished product when that product is over. It’s very different than writing a book, which can feel very infinite and interminable – like, when will I be done? I don’t know. I’ll know when I know. I like to bake because at the end of the process, you have a cake or a cookie, and it looks the way it supposed to look.”
I know you don’t write your books’ scenes in order, which is the opposite of baking.
“It’s interesting that you bring that up. It does make for a more chaotic writing experience, which is the opposite of how I feel when I’m baking. It’s also nice to have a cookie when it’s done.”
Lara Jean loves baking, too.
“[In] the third book, there’s a whole lot of baking. It’s very meta. The more I was stressed out, the more I was baking. It turned into this whole thing where she’s stressed out and baking. It’s a very personal experience.”
Has your writing routine changed this year?
“It’s been harder to find that time. I have a lot more demands on my time in terms of promoting the movie and working on the next movie. It’s its own kind of work. Fun work, but still work. You have to carve out space. I still do my writing retreats, which I've been doing my whole writing career. I rent a house and gather a bunch of writer friends together and go work. It’s to get outside of my own everyday routine and immerse myself in the work.”
Can you still easily get back into the creative headspace?
“Oh my gosh, yeah. I have so many ideas. And so little time.”
Lana has become a full-on celebrity because she got this dream role. How do you feel knowing that your story was part of launching her career?
“I really adore her. I couldn’t be more proud of her when I see her out in the world. She's so smart and so driven. I see her as somebody who has a long career ahead of her. That’s all I want, since the first time we met. I told her that I hoped this could be a launching pad for her to keep working. And not the only time we get to see an Asian American girl be the lead in a movie.”
Did you foresee Peter Kavinsky becoming a fixture in the romantic lead pantheon?
“Of all the boys I’ve written, Peter’s been the biggest hit with the most people. There’s something about that character that people gravitate towards. Noah does a great job of drawing out his softness and sweetness. In some ways it’s an easy role and it’s a tough role. Peter is a sweet guy, but he has an ease about him in life. He’s used to having things easy. He’s handsome; people like to be around him. Yes, he had some cockiness to him, but he was unabashedly himself. People are drawn to that. He’s had struggles, sure — but to balance that and show that vulnerability is something that Noah brought out beautifully.”
From afar, it seems like you, Lana, and Noah are so close.
Lana and I FaceTime every day. I see her all the time. She’s been so generous to me. She’s always inviting me to really fun stuff. The other day, one of my friends was like, ‘Doesn’t she have her own friends to go out with and not like, you.’ And I was like, first of all thanks. But I think she’s genuinely so sweet and generous. And she knows I’d love to go places with her. We always have a fun time together.”
To All the Boys is part of a recent wave of YA books being turned into movies. How do you hope that YA literature and movies can coexist?
“The relationship I hope to see between the books and movies is that you get more great parts for young women. [Movies based on YA books] are going to be about heroines that have fully realised inner lives, are actively choosing their own life paths, and aren’t about them supporting a boy’s story. That’s something really specific about YA.
“I think you’ll notice that as they get older, there aren’t as interesting parts for women. In the 20s, 30s, early see the wife, the supporting-a-man role. Then, they cross a threshold and get more meaty parts. But there’s a gap between where there’s not as much. YA does serve that audience.”
Do you foresee pursuing more screenwriting opportunities?
“Definitely. Writing is just writing, and I have an interest in doing all kinds of writing. It’s fun to explore different mediums. It’s a way to challenge myself and examine my own writing process and what makes writing fun and exciting for you.”
Has this year allowed you to stretch those abilities?
“It’s given me more opportunity and so many chances to learn new things. That’s been such a gift. Now I understand what a line producer does; I understand all the work that goes into getting a movie made. The most emotional process for me was to be on set and get to see all the unseen hands that go into making a movie. You realise how important every piece of the puzzle is. You feel humbled and overwhelmed that this thing that you created alone is now being is now being worked on, with such respect, by so many people.”
What’s been your favourite part of the last year?
“I would say Halloween was a huge high point for me. I didn’t expect to feel so emotional about it. But I definitely cried. They started to pour in, picture after picture. To be able to see this character, Lara Jean, take her place in the pantheon of Asian American female characters of which there are so few. Halloween is limited when you're trying to think of a character to be from pop culture. The options are so limited. To think there’s one more option where someone can say, 'There’s someone who looks like me and I can emulate,’ is profoundly moving.”

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series