Jenna Bush Hager Reads to Her Kids All the Time: 'Books Are One of the Best Parts of Parenting'
Jenna Bush Hager, cohost of Today and daughter of President George W. Bush, shares the books that shaped her worldview and the kid's books that have earned a spot on her home library shelf now that she's a mom of three.
With her self-confessed love of Celine Dion and Love Actually, Jenna Bush Hager exudes zero pretense. Bubbly, approachable, and unfailingly self-deprecating, the daughter of President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush (who holds a master’s degree in library science) is now a cohost of NBC’s Today With Hoda & Jenna and admits to harboring disdain for only one thing: junky books. “I only want to read well-written books,” she says, almost apologetically. “I’m kind of a snob that way!”
Hager explains, “Our mom made sure my sister and I were surrounded with wonderful books from the time we were babies.” She launched the Today show book club, Read With Jenna, in March 2019, and has recommended a new book on air every month since then. (Her picks have the power to propel a debut, such as Valentine, by Elizabeth Wetmore, onto the New York Times best-seller list.) She’s also authored five books of her own, including the memoir Sisters First, written with her twin sister, Barbara, and Ana’s Story, which details the life of a 17-year-old living with HIV whom Jenna met while working for UNICEF. Her latest book, Everything Beautiful in Its Time, a tribute to her grandparents, is out September 2020.
Now that she has three kids of her own—Mila, 7, Poppy, 4, and Hal, 11 months—she’s the mom filling the family bookshelf. “Sharing favorite books is one of the best parts of parenting,” she says. Here, she reveals the standouts that have shaped her into the woman she is today.
A favorite book my mom and dad read aloud: James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl
“We loved all the Roald Dahl books, particularly this one. He created incredible, fantastical worlds that were built just for children—places you could never go to but would love to visit. Most often, my parents would read to us in their bed. The four of us would all be in there together while my mom and dad took turns reading out loud. That gave us such a cozy, secure feeling.”
The book that paved the way to tweendom: The Baby-Sitters Club: Logan Likes Mary Anne! (Book #10), by Ann M. Martin
“As a little girl I devoured the Baby-Sitters Club books, which Barbara and I borrowed from the school library. My favorite was the one where Mary Anne starts to like Logan. I was a chubby third-grader who wasn’t so popular with the boys, so I guess I was daydreaming about those kinds of things. There was also Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, which I think my mom read to us when we were in fourth grade. Barbara and I loved that depiction of Anne and Diana’s friendship. Remember when they got drunk on the wine? And of course there was the boy, Gilbert, who was Anne’s first love.” I wanted to learn more about these things. It also changed the way I thought about books—the way literature can open your eyes and create empathy.”
A best-seller that blew my mind: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
“One summer in college, I was working in Washington, D.C., and read The Secret History. I was so obsessed with it I was practically unable to talk. I loved all of its complexities and references to Greek mythology—it was a book you almost had to study. I want to reread it!”
A book I loved teaching: The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
“After college, I taught at a school in West Baltimore where I introduced my sixth-graders to this book, which takes place in a neighborhood like theirs. Esperanza means “hope,” and I think my students felt hopeful reading it. They shared with Esperanza this eternal optimism of middle-schoolers.”
A parenting book that doesn’t stress me out: The Whole Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson
“It’s by a neuropsychiatrist and a psychotherapist who are able to helpfully explain the simple science of why our kids are the way they are.”
A novel that helped me and my husband become better parents: Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson
“This book about neglected twins who spontaneously selfcombust is totally hilarious and crazy. But weirdly, it also helped Henry and me reshape our perspectives on parenting. You realize that in the end, being a great parent isn’t about doing a million over-the-top things. What kids need is our calm, steady presence. They just need to feel loved.”
A book that my mom and I bonded over: The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss
“I adored this novel, which explores different forms of love, and I recommended it to my mom. I’ve always underlined favorite passages. She borrowed my copy and later told me that she was especially interested to see the parts that I marked, a little window into what I was thinking. It was like a reading journey we took together.”
The book that my sister, Barbara Pierce Bush, and I needed to write: Sisters First: Stories From Our Wild and Wonderful Life
“The way women were talked about during the 2016 election was not what we saw reflected in our own lives and nothing we wanted girls to grow up with. We wanted to write about women lifting each other up. It was also a love letter to each other because we feel that having a sister has made us braver, more confident, and more daring.”
A guilty-pleasure read: Mysteries
“Like my dad, I love mysteries. But I don’t feel guilty about reading them. I guess the ones I like you could call literary mysteries. I love the writer Tana French, who wrote In the Woods. And Erin Kelly, who wrote The Poison Tree and The Dark Rose. Those are winding, gothic reads that are really fun.”
A writer who makes me cry: Nancy Tillman
“My sister, Barbara, read On the Night You Were Born at Mila’s baptism and Wherever You Are: My Love Will Find You at Poppy’s. I wept uncontrollably both times.”
A book series my kids love: Dory Fantasmagory, by Abby Hanlon
“Dory desperately wants the attention of her siblings. There are three kids in the book, so it aligns pretty well with our family. Dory has an imagination the size of Texas. These books are so funny that Henry and I laugh hysterically too. They’re read-alouds but also perfect for emerging readers. Nothing has made me prouder than watching Mila reading the Dory books confidently all by herself.”
- RELATED: How to Start a Kids Book Club
A classic that my cohost, Hoda Kotb, and I bonded over: A Gift From the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
“Hoda gave me this beautiful collection of essays about marriage, solitude, and the stages of life. I keep it on my nightstand and turn to it when I need peace and inspiration.”
A book that was therapeutic for me to write: Everything Beautiful in Its Time
“I wrote this after I lost my grandmother Barbara, then my grandfather George, and then my grandmother on my mother’s side, Jenna, whom I’m named after. It’s basically a love letter to them. The book started out as a journal for me in coping with my grief; it got me thinking about the lessons that they taught me and how they’ve shaped me. So it’s also about joy. Because in order to grieve someone, you have to love them.”
Everything You Need to Know About Jenna
When We Can Travel, I Want to Show the Kids… All the magnificent parts of our country. My mom passed down her love of the national parks, and I got engaged in Acadia National Park.
Being Raised in Texas Made Me Love… Being outdoors, baseball, and Tex-Mex
Currently Growing in Our Garden: Veggies! We planted tomatoes, mint, lettuce, and peppers.
Everyone Fights Over Baby Hal Until… The girls win. Mila said recently, “He’s the baby of our dreams!”
I Feel Like Such a Mom When… I vacuum for the tenth time every day.
Before Filming Today at Home, I Always… Straighten the books behind me and make sure the kiddos are in their rooms with the doors shut.
Being a Teacher Taught Me… That kids can do the most incredible things. We just need to have high expectations.
Best Souvenir From the White House: My husband! I met him in D.C. while he was working there.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's August 2020 issue as “A Life in Books.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here