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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    On NBC's 'Today,' Jenna Bush Hager is becoming book publishing's best friend

    Ever since the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager has been desperate to find an unlikely family heirloom.

    "She had a needlepoint pillow that said, 'Reading is sexy,'" the "Today with Hoda & Jenna" co-host recalled in a recent conversation at NBC's studios in New York's Rockefeller Center, where she does her daily program with Hoda Kotb.

    "I'm like, 'Where is that pillow? Why didn't I get that?' I feel that way."

    The embroidered item represents a generational habit for Hager. Her mother, former First Lady Laura Bush, was a librarian and, like Barbara Bush, an advocate for literacy.

    Hager, 41, has lived in households, including her own with husband Henry and three young children, where a book ladder that slides along library shelves is standard operating equipment.

    The image is a sharp contrast to the time when the tabloids portrayed Hager as a partying wild child while her father, President George W. Bush, served in the White House. She had fun but was also a serious literature student at the University of Texas at Austin.

    "College may have looked like one thing because going to parties looks more interesting than staying at the library," Hager said. "Nobody knows exactly what was going on, and my day in and day out was much more focused on studying. I've worked really hard over the last 20 years to create my own narrative."

    In recent years, Hager has taken her passion for reading to a broader platform. After joining the fourth hour of "Today" as a co-host in 2019, she began recommending books in a monthly segment on the program, and in a short time has become a publishing tastemaker.

    Out of the 49 titles selected for #ReadWithJenna book club, 36 have made the bestseller list. Sixteen of the bestsellers are from first-time authors such as Katy Hays, whose novel "The Cloisters" was a pick in November.

    Hager's eye for material led to a production deal made earlier this year with NBCUniversal's studio Universal Studio Group. With the partnership, she formed her own company, called Thousand Voices, which has optioned seven titles, including "The Cloisters," to develop into TV series.

    After finishing her morning duties at "Today," Hager heads into Zoom meetings with Ben Spector, a veteran producer who previously ran actor Eva Longoria's UnbeliEVAble Entertainment and is now Hager's point person in Hollywood.

    Hager is eager to expand Thousand Voices into a multifaceted media company that makes TV shows, podcasts and other projects.

    Thousand Voices recently acquired the rights to "Summer Sisters," a 1998 novel about female friendship by the enduring young adult author Judy Blume. Hager is developing it into a TV series.

    "Like any woman of my age, I have been wildly obsessed with her because she sort of told me the truth before others did," Hager said.

    Social media influencers have emerged as a force in promoting titles to readers — TikTok has a book club with a roster of "#BookTok laureates" making recommendations. But book clubs fronted by a recognizable celebrity name — popularized by Oprah Winfrey in 1996 — still have clout. ("Today" rival "Good Morning America" on ABC also has an influential book club segment.)

    "I would say Reese Witherspoon and Jenna are the two biggest," said Libby McGuire, senior vice president and publisher for Atria Books. "It's because of the person behind them."

    Hager has focused on new and lesser-known authors who don't always get marketing support. Her first book recommendation was "There There," a novel by Indigenous author Tommy Orange that depicts the lives of Native Americans living in Oakland.

    NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said the response validated the company's belief that Hager could be more than an on-air personality. "She has demonstrated a unique ability to influence taste on a national scale," said Oppenheim. "She has an extraordinary eye for identifying emerging talent."

    Outside of campaigning for her father, Hager has never been outwardly political (her voter registration is not affiliated with a party). But her #ReadWithJenna choices give special attention to diverse and underrepresented voices. Thousand Voices acquired the rights to her August choice, Jamie Ford's "The Many Daughters of Afong Moy," a novel based on the story of the first Chinese woman to come to America in the 1830s.

    Support for a #ReadWithJenna selection goes beyond plugging it on TV and social media.

    "She did an event at Barnes & Noble with Jamie Ford when his book was published, and she could pitch that book as well as the editor, the publicist or I could," McGuire said. "It's absolutely genuine."

    Hager did not set out to have a television career. After graduating from college, she took a teaching position at a public school in Washington, D.C., and interned for UNICEF in Latin America.

    Hager was still working as a teacher in Baltimore when she landed on NBC's radar. She joined her mother as a co-host on "Today" in 2008 to promote a book they wrote together. Jim Bell, then executive producer of "Today," liked what he saw and invited Hager back to appear occasionally as a special correspondent. She left the classroom behind and joined the program full time in 2010.

    Hager eventually succeeded Kathie Lee Gifford, a daytime TV legend, as Kotb's co-host on the fourth hour of "Today," a breezy (and at times boozy) adjunct to the morning news program.

    Under Kotb and Hager, the dynamic of the hour has changed from a wine moms convention to a feel-good celebration of female friendship. The program's set exudes happiness, using pastel colors that evoke Easter eggs and cake frosting as the hosts chat about pop culture, social media trends, fashion, food and their own experiences with contributors and guests.

    "With Kathie Lee, I was watching and learning the whole time and I always rode sidecar," Kotb said. "The difference with Jenna is we're more kind of peers."

    Although there is a 17-year age gap between them, Kotb and Hager are mothers of young children and often swap stories about their family lives. They tear up at times during their conversations, even in production meetings before the show.

    "Hoda and I respect and like each other a lot and sometimes we just share, as if she and I are speaking at a table with a bunch of people" Hager said. "There's a vulnerability to it that I'm comfortable with."

    Although Hager is a well-known public figure because of her political family, she does serve up tales about her rarefied upbringing. She only recently revealed to viewers that the first night she spent with her husband when they were dating was at the White House while her parents were away.

    Hager often talks about how books provide companionship. She has also learned about the relationship a live TV host develops with viewers over time.

    Hager and Kotb recently did their first shows in front of a live studio audience in more than two years, which included a sit-down with former First Lady Michelle Obama. The crowd welcomed them like old friends.

    Hager has co-written two books with her twin, Barbara Pierce Bush. During their book tours, she downplayed her own work when compared to her sister's role in heading Global Health Corps, a nonprofit organization that trains health care workers across Africa. But her attitude has changed.

    "People would ask, 'Well tell us about your jobs?' and my standard answer was, 'Oh, I just sit next to Hoda and get to laugh and Barbara is changing the world,'" Hager said. "I don't do that anymore because over the three years people will come up with me and say, 'I was going through chemo' or 'I was on maternity leave and it was really hard but y'all made me laugh.'"

    ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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