Anyone Could Be the Girl Next Door: How Jenny Han Defied Hollywood Typecasting to Turn The Summer I Turned Pretty Into a Smash Hit

Sitting in her writing office, surrounded by mossy green bookshelves, Jenny Han is telling an origin story of sorts.

She was 24, and her first novel was about to be published. At the time, it wasn’t considered appropriate for authors to put their headshot on the back flap of their books. But Han wanted hers to be on it — not for vanity’s sake but to reinforce the magnitude of her achievement. Because when she was younger, she “just didn’t know it was possible to be an author.”

Eleven books, three movies and two TV shows later, the YA writer has built a fervent fan base through her ability to capture the flutter of an emerging crush, the euphoria of falling in love, the scald of heartbreak. Netflix’s adaptation of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” became one of the streaming service’s most-viewed original movies upon its premiere in 2018. “The Summer I Turned Pretty” vaulted to the No. 1 spot on Prime Video when Season 1 debuted in 2022. Viewers of the series, which just premiered its second season, swooned for 16-year-old Belly Conklin (Lola Tung), who becomes entangled in a love triangle with two brothers over the course of a summer in their families’ shared beach house.

Sweetening the show’s appeal are the carefully curated needle drops strewn throughout. Olivia Rodrigo, One Direction and especially Taylor Swift are a few of the artists who populate the soundtrack to Season 2. Han is an avowed Swiftie, but using the pop superstar’s music is also a smart creative decision: Placing nine of her songs in “The Summer I Turned Pretty” will no doubt attract — and possibly convert — Swift fans to viewers of the show.

That savviness extends to Han’s hand in the series’ overall creative process — and to her career moves too. When she sold “The Summer I Turned Pretty” for television, she made the rare leap from author to co-showrunner. She’s also a co-showrunner on Netflix’s “To All the Boys” spinoff series “XO, Kitty.” Now she has her own production company, Jenny Kissed Me, and several upcoming projects, including her first for adults, though the writers strike has paused her work on them for the time being.

Han credits the success of the “Summer I Turned Pretty” books — in which Belly is white — with emboldening her to write an Asian American protagonist for “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.” When that novel became a Netflix hit, she leveraged her newfound clout to make meaningful choices about the “Summer I Turned Pretty” series.

“If I hadn’t made ‘To All the Boys,’” she says, “then I don’t know that I would have had the power to say ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ will also have an Asian lead.”

For Han, bucking tired modes of typecasting is a driving force as she navigates the worlds of book publishing and Hollywood.

“In children’s books, if your character was the person of color, then it was going to be a book about some sort of problem, some historical issue,” she says. “So if I’m Asian, then the issue would be Japanese internment camps. Or it was going to be a story about being sad that my parents were really strict.”

Han’s aim is to subvert such presumptions. “What I’ve wanted and pushed for was just having more options for people. If you want to go to the beach and read something, you could read a romantic story with a person of color and still have the light and fun story. … Anyone could be the girl next door.”

More than anything, for all the Asian girls who picked up her first book, she wanted them to see her picture on the back flap and know that they, too, could aspire to be authors: “I thought, ‘See me, and see that that is possible.’”

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