Jenna Bush Hager, a book industry insider with a new title of her own
By Elisabeth Egan
Let’s get this out of the way early: Jenna Bush Hager’s new book, “Everything Beautiful in Its Time,” will not be a Read With Jenna selection.
That, said the former first daughter, first granddaughter and current co-host of the “Today” show, “might be one step too far.”
Hager started the book club in March 2019, and its selections, which are featured on “Today,” tend to get purchased faster than Al Roker can say, “Here’s what’s happening in your neck of the woods.” Fourteen of her 19 picks have become New York Times bestsellers. She has anointed debut novelists, including Abi Daré, author of “The Girl With the Louding Voice,” and Megha Majumdar, author of “A Burning,” as well as veterans such as Ann Patchett, Kevin Wilson, Jean Kwok and J. Courtney Sullivan.
She has given the nod to titles issued by the biggest publishing houses but also nonprofit indie presses like Milkweed Editions, which published “Late Migrations,” her December selection. This month she named her September pick: “Transcendent Kingdom,” by Yaa Gyasi.
Hager was born into a political dynasty but has never shown any indication of wanting to join the family business. Instead she has become a force in publishing, where she now finds herself in a position of influence on par with Reese Witherspoon and Oprah Winfrey.
In a phone interview that was briefly interrupted by former President George W. Bush attempting to FaceTime (“He keeps calling! This is the third time!”), Hager said she reads around 10 books a month and is currently looking at ones that are coming out in February and March.
“The little nerd in me — that couldn’t wait to get the next installment in the Baby-Sitters Club series — loves that I get to read everything early,” she said. “Going to places in these novels that I’ve never gone to, witnessing characters’ struggles and triumphs, having relationships with writers who are so unbelievably talented — honestly, and I’m not just saying this, some of these books have changed my life.”
The appreciation is mutual: Authors feel as if they’ve won the golden ticket when their book is chosen. “It’s like Ed McMahon showing up at your door with a check, but instead of money it’s a future and an audience for your writing,” said R. Eric Thomas, whose debut essay collection, “Here for It,” was a Read With Jenna pick in August.
Until Thomas received Hager’s endorsement, he thought the pinnacle of his book’s success was its inclusion on his high school’s summer reading list. “Friends of mine reached out and said, ‘Did you know that your book was on the “Today” show?’ ” he said. “Yes, I was aware. It’s such a gift.”
Hager was 7 when her grandfather George H.W. Bush became president, and in college when her parents moved into the White House. She had a reputation for partying and famously stuck her tongue out at reporters when her father was campaigning for reelection. After graduating from the University of Texas, she interned with UNICEF in Latin America and taught at schools in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. In 2008, she married Henry Chase Hager, the son of a former Virginia lieutenant governor, and they now have three children: Mila, Poppy and Hal.
Although Hager generally avoids talking about politics, she noted that her two sets of grandparents, while admiring each other, were on opposite sides of the aisle. Her maternal grandparents, Harold and Jenna Welch, she said, “were liberal, were Democrats, and in fact in a picture from my parents’ wedding, there’s a sign that said ‘Welches to the left.’ They were very different, but I think what they cared about, what really mattered to them, was their family.”
So what happens when the leader of an influential book club writes a book of her own? Hager is about to find out. On Tuesday, William Morrow will publish “Everything Beautiful in Its Time,” a collection of essays about her family and the triple punch of losing three grandparents in one year.
It won’t be the first time Hager sees her name on a spine: She has written two children’s books with her mother, Laura Bush; a memoir, “Sisters First,” with her twin sister, Barbara (also published in a children’s edition); and “Ana’s Story,” the account of a 17-year-old mother with HIV. But “Everything Beautiful in Its Time” will be her first publishing experience as an industry insider.
Cassie Jones, an executive editor at William Morrow/HarperCollins who worked with Hager on the book, called it “a celebration of the complicated, messy and often hilarious moments of life.” In addition to her writing on motherhood and family life, Hager describes watching the 2016 election returns, then seeing her daughter’s teacher, who is Muslim, the next morning: “I thought I saw worry in her expressive eyes.” She includes a letter she and her sister wrote to Sasha and Malia Obama before they moved into the White House, which said, “It isn’t always easy being a member of the club you are about to join.”
“Everything Beautiful in Its Time” grew out of journal entries Hager started writing in April 2018 after the death of her paternal grandmother, former first lady Barbara Bush.
She had listened to pundits talk about her loved ones before, but she was unprepared for the disconnect she felt while grieving. “I was alone, watching television. When you’re so raw — when you’ve just gotten a call that your grandmother has died — and somebody says something like, ‘Oh, well, we all knew she would die before her husband,’ that was the last thing we thought,” Hager said. “I started writing my grandmother a letter, and it was a comfort, because my grandparents were always writers.”
She recalled Barbara “Ganny” Bush drinking coffee and writing diary entries and letters to friends on summer mornings in Maine. Her maternal grandmother and namesake, Jenna Welch, also sought connection through the written word.
“She wasn’t formally educated, but she continued to learn throughout her life,” Hager said. “She loved to read and study other cultures. Barbara (her sister) and I were always fascinated looking at her National Geographic collection. Really, she just wanted to know about all the places she would never get to travel to.”
Welch shared her passion for books with her daughter, Laura Bush, who later became a librarian. In a phone interview, Laura Bush talked about how her mother read the “Little House” books aloud; of course, sharing a name with the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, was a perk.
When Jenna and Barbara were young, story time was a cherished, if occasionally chaotic, tradition, their mother added. “I have a very funny old photograph of George lying on the floor with Barbara and Jenna jumping on him as I read Dr. Seuss’ ‘Hop on Pop.’ ”