- Photo by Mia Baxter
- Telling her story: Jenna Bush, somewhere in Latin America
News that President Bush's daughter Jenna Bush has written a book has been met with some condescension and smirks. Images of her youthful indiscretions, such as a brush with the law for proffering a fake ID, still haunt the Internet: Blond party girl Jenna; drunk and falling down Jenna; squad-car Jenna sticking her tongue out at photographers. Up until now, her public image has been that of the troubled twin, the one who seemed to struggle most with inheriting her father's partying gene.
Ironically perhaps, all these things may have helped Bush write a better book for and about teens learning to make good decisions for themselves. Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope is based on a year she spent traveling in Latin America for UNICEF, meeting kids who were abuse survivors, orphaned by HIV/AIDS, living with the disease themselves and making their own decisions about teen sexuality and parenthood.
At first glance, it may not help skeptics take Bush seriously as an author that her first book is aimed at young adults. (However, this probably says more about the respect afforded to young adult literature authors generally). And then, there's the subject matter: a privileged Republican scion, writing narrative non-fiction from the point of view of a poor Latin American teen mother infected with HIV? A cautious approach would be prudent, to say the least.
In Ana's Story, readers encounter a book that depicts teenagers having sex and discusses condom use and HIV/AIDS prevention with a frankness not customary among older Republicans. The Economist called Jenna Bush the true "compassionate conservative" for advocating ideas—just simple information—that run counter to her father's policies on AIDS at home and throughout the world.
To allay the skeptics up front: Yes, she can write. In fact, the University of Texas-Austin grad was an English major and has been an avid reader and writer since high school. After graduation from college, Bush taught at an inner-city Washington, D.C., school where she studied young adult literature and learned firsthand what clicks with kids and what doesn't.
"I felt really comfortable writing a book for kids. I felt like I could really do it," Bush says, speaking by telephone last week from Birmingham, Ala., where she was promoting her book.
- Photo by Mia Baxter
- Mother and daughter, as seen in Ana's Story
Any snide suspicions one may harbor about the author's ability or her intentions are quickly swept away upon opening the book. After a brief preface, Bush fades from view and we tune in to Ana's voice, which feels surprisingly near to us despite the use of third-person narration. Bush neatly avoids egotism and doesn't subject us to the tedious device (so common in Hollywood social dramas set in developing countries) of offering a white Westerner as a romantic/dramatic lead. Ana is the heroine of her own story. This says something powerful about our narrator also: Bush doesn't assume her readers look like her, nor that they will have trouble relating to Ana's humanity, no matter what their skin tone, age or income level.
Ana's Story deserves high marks as a dramatic, absorbing and moving read for kids and adults alike. The intense action is told in short chapters that snowball in poetic force and clarity. Occasionally, photos remind us that this story is not made up, but real. It's hard to not be emotionally caught up in scenes like the death of Ana's father from AIDS (he shares the same bedroom with Ana and her sister at the time) and Ana's discovery of first love at a reformatory (where she is sent because abusive biological family members won't let her be adopted by loving foster parents).
Ana is a pseudonym, a name chosen perhaps to resonate with another classic of young adult nonfiction: The Diary of Anne Frank. There's some validity to the parallel: Although Frank wrote her own memoir, of course, Ana's young life is also full of persecution and difficulties beyond her years. Like Anne, Ana also has youthful loves and attachments that give meaning and value to a life under siege. The book also is somewhat reminiscent of Alice Walker's The Color Purple, which gave an empowering voice to her (fictional) naïve narrator, the child bride of an abusive husband.
The strength of Ana's Story, by contrast, is its nonfiction basis. Ana is not a composite, Bush assures us, although she came to know lots of kids in similar situations as she worked on the book. She also interviewed family members and other people in Ana's life in order to give her portrait of events three dimensions.
Ana's Story contains handsome, glossy photographs taken by Mia Baxter, Bush's best friend. The two met when they were 16, about Ana's age, and Bush says this helps kids she meets on tour relate to her simply as a once-normal teen, rather than a remote White House celebrity.
"Kids don't care who your parents are. It's adults that care about those small things. Kids, they like you for who you are, and that's one thing I love about children," Bush says.
At 25, Jenna Bush is no longer a child herself, yet some adults don't seem to want her to grow up. Interviewing Bush for The Today Show, Anne Curry (in a three-segment puff piece largely devoted to Bush's family and upcoming engagement) cooed to the first-time author that, had her own 14-year-old daughter written a book, "I would be so proud."
Nor can adults often resist the temptation to see Bush as an extension of her parents. Curry seemed reluctant to accept Bush's adamant and repeated denials of any interest in carrying on the Bush family political "dynasty" (Curry's word). "Never is a long time," Curry said with the sage condescension of a parent talking to a minor teen.
It's precisely because Bush lacks any of these mannered, distancing habits of adults that her book succeeds. Though she shies away from advising officials on policy ("I'm really more comfortable giving advice to kids"), by taking her book to high schools and middle schools, Bush is leading a one-woman campaign to bring truthful AIDS education to American classrooms. A section at the end of Ana's Story gives kids resources and suggestions on ways to help, and dispels a list of popular myths about HIV/AIDS.
"This story really needed to be brought back for students living in the United States. This story really does belong in schools, with teachers or parents. It was important, too, because I wished, when I was in high school, that I'd had some of this information. The only way I really got it was going to some of these places," Bush says. "The hope of Ana's life and the lives of kids like her is education. It's education that can break these cycles."
Bush says she hasn't yet encountered any controversy for her position, and she sticks to her guns on condom education in schools. "I hope most people in the United States are pretty open-minded. There are a lot of ways that kids can keep themselves safe. It is a really personal decision and I'm not here to judge the way that anybody makes that decision. But I do think that kids need to have that education."
Just a few years out of college and already an educator and author, Bush hopes to return to the classroom someday and plans to continue writing books. "The people at HarperCollins told me this, and it's really true: 'I can tell you're going to be a lifer.'" For any still doubting, her second book is already finished and due out in May. It's a picture book, co-authored by her mother, Laura Bush, meant to interest younger children in reading.
Meanwhile, proceeds from Ana's Story are being channeled to an education fund for the book's anonymous source. Bush agreed not to disclose her national origin to further shield the teen's identity, although several news sources have reported it.
"I'm really happy to say that her baby [who so far has tested HIV-negative] has care and now [Ana] is back in school," Bush says.
Jenna Bush will speak at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 14, at Meredith College's Jones Auditorium. She will also sign copies of Ana's Story. Tickets are $5 (or free with purchase of the book) and are available at Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh. Proceeds from the reading will be donated to UNICEF. For more information on the event, including its numerous special security restrictions, visit quailridgebooks.booksense.com or call 828-1588.
Correction (Nov. 13, 2007): The time of Jenna Bush's appearance was listed incorrectly. The event begins at 7 p.m., and the Secret Service will stop admitting people at 6:50 p.m.