Jenna Bush Hager loves The Bluest Eye and will never read Moby Dick
Jenna Bush Hager has been busy making a name for herself in the literary world as of late, thanks to the expansive influence of her Today show book club Read With Jenna, and this week she comes full circle with the release of her own book. It isn't Hager's first time taking to the page — she co-authored Sisters First with her twin, Barbara, in 2017 — but her memoir Everything Beautiful In Its Time takes a decidedly more personal turn. It's about her own journey grappling with grief, penned in the wake of losing all three of her grandparents in a relatively short period of time. It began as journal entries and letters meant only for herself, but in 2019 she decided to turn it into a public work.
"I wrote this book about loss," she says. "And how I learned from my grandparents that everything is going to happen when it's supposed to."
The book title is part of a Bible verse, from Ecclesiastes, that Hager read at her maternal grandmother, Jenna's, funeral, who was the last of her grandparents to pass away. "She doesn't have a school named after her, or an airport, but she was just as important in forming who my sister, Barbara, and I are today," she says. "When I read that passage in that context, it felt like an appropriate title for the book."
EW spoke to the author and Today show host — and book club mogul — about her own personal list of must-reads. See her Books of My Life below.
My favorite book as a child
I loved The Baby-Sitters Club and that group of awesome, empowered girls. I've been maternal since I was little — I loved babies, I wanted to be a baby-sitter. And now my daughter, Mila, has been reading the graphic novels this summer, which was so fun. Logan Likes Mary Anne just came out. I was the type of third-grader that boys did not look at and were not interested in, but was desperate for some sort of romance, so Logan vs. Mary Anne taught me about love. Mila and I read the graphic novels and then we watched the Netflix series, which was great.
The genre I would read if I could only pick one
I think literary fiction. That's what I read the most of and if you asked me, if I had time, to list my 100 favorite books, they would almost all fall into that category. Although I love a good mystery, too.
The last book to make me laugh
I have a hard time with comedic books for some reason. I can cry at the drop of a hat, but laughter comes harder for me, especially now. But Kevin Wilson's Nothing to See Here is so funny. Oh, and also Here For It by R. Eric Thomas! That definitely was the most recent one. He's everything. I can't even believe how talented he is. In one sentence he conveys everything we feel in life.
The last book to make me cry
Everything! Transcendent Kingdom. Didn't you love that? I wept. I'm trying to remember at exactly what moment. I feel like Yaa has this beautiful way of observing life, obviously when her mother is dealing with her grief, and the loss of her brother, broke me. But there were these little moments and sentences that just were so poignant to me and felt so real and raw and true that tears would come to my eyes.
The classic novel that I've pretended to read but never read
The Brontë sisters, I have to tell you. Barbara's always like, didn't you love that? And I'm like yes [laughs]. I think I did read Wuthering Heights but in general, I acted like I loved all of those books. I do love gothic literature, so I feel like those are the ones I should read. Every year I'm like, this summer I'm going to read all the classics. And another one is Moby Dick. I mean, have you ever read Moby Dick?
A movie adaptation I really love
Ironically: Jane Eyre. I loved the most recent version. And Little Women. I read it to my girls and then we watched the Greta Gerwig version. It was great, it was a little harder kids because it was more complicated than just the straightforward format, but I loved what she did and I loved the Claire Danes version, too.
A book I'm still dying to see an adaptation for
I mean, all of the books I read for Read With Jenna, I think, that must be a film or television show. I think Valentine would be a great television show. The Secret History would be good — think about how complicated it is. That, to me, feels like gothic literature. I mean, I don't know if Donna Tartt would agree. But it was so layered and anything that's a character study would be a really fun adaptation.
A book that I read over and over
You know, I really don't have one. Because I do so much forward-reading. But Bel Canto, I've read at least twice. And The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros I've read multiple times. I read it in school, I read it again for fun, and then I read it as a teacher when I taught sixth grade. I loved reading it multiple times and seeing the layers you notice as an adult. And I saw how my kids read Esperanza, the main character, and felt the hope — whereas as a more cynical adult, there were parts that just broke my heart.
A book that inspired me in writing my own
This one, in particular, was just so personal. But there are books about grief that I've read and loved. Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene. I read it in its early inception, when it was in galley form, and I interviewed Jayson for the show, and I was so moved by it. It's about unimaginable grief, the type we hope we never ever experience. It's much different than mine because mine is about inevitable grief. But what I loved about it was the hope and beauty and finding the love and companionship that Jayson found with his wife and that Jayson found with his wife.
My literary heroes
Toni Morrison for sure. She was somebody that I always wanted to meet. The first interview I ever did was with Diane Sawyer and she asked me who I would be starstruck about if they walked in — this was a long time ago so I think she expecting me to say someone along the lines of Brad Pitt. But I said Toni Morrison, and she was going to surprise me and introduce us but I was flying somewhere right afterwards. I think I would have had a heart attack right there. I've listened to everything she's ever said and of course, read all of her books. The Bluest Eye changed me in a way that I can't even really describe. And I was able to interview Maya Angelou shortly before she died. When people ask me what the greatest gift I've ever gotten through the Today show is, it would be that interview. That moment with her at her kitchen table. Oh, and Ann Patchett. She's a girl crush that I now get to email, through my book club, and I pinch myself. I just adore her.