On May 5, when the teaser trailer for The Summer I Turned Pretty dropped, author and creator Jenny Han satisfied two longstanding requests from her fans: to adapt her beloved young-readers’ trilogy for the screen, and to make sure Taylor Swift’s music is in the soundtrack. Swift debuted a snippet of “This Love (Taylor’s Version)” in the teaser, her wistful vocals providing a backdrop to a sweet, summery montage.
Han listened to Swift’s music “nonstop” when she was writing the original book more than a decade ago. “Her music does really match up beautifully to the themes, and she’s just an incredible storyteller in her own right,” the author says. “Over the years, people have asked me: If the show ever got made, could it please have Taylor Swift’s music on it?”
Coming-of-age, discovering one’s agency, falling in love for the first time—and making plenty of mistakes along the way—these are themes that speak to both Swift’s and Han’s audiences. Han explores them fully in the highly anticipated first season of The Summer I Turned Pretty, which premieres June 17 on Prime Video. The series follows teenager Belly Conklin, played by newcomer Lola Tung, through a fateful summer in Cousins Beach, the ritzy beach town where she and her family have vacationed every year with their friends, the Fishers. Every summer, Belly, the youngest kid in the group, has felt like the unwanted tagalong—but this year is different. Suddenly, the Fisher brothers and other boys in town are treating her differently, noticing her, and her lifelong unrequited crush on Conrad Fisher seems like it might finally lead to something more.
Han published the first book in the series in 2009, five years before she launched another hit trilogy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which was made into three popular movies on Netflix. For The Summer I Turned Pretty, Han took control behind the scenes, and in April announced an overall deal with Amazon Studios under her production banner Jenny Kissed Me. Ahead of its premiere, Amazon announced it had renewed Summer for a second season.
Han spoke to TIME about finding the right young actor to bring Belly to life, moving the conversation about diversity on TV forward, and the potency of first love.
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TIME: In addition to writing the source material, you were the creator, a co-showrunner, and an executive producer on the series. What did you learn about making TV?
Han: It was a real jump in the deep end. I’d never worked in TV before. Filmmaking is kind of like a military operation where everybody knows what their job is. As a showrunner, you’re sort of the air-traffic controller.
Lola Tung makes her debut as the teen protagonist, Belly. Tell me about the casting process: What did she bring to the role?
I was looking for somebody who genuinely felt like a teenage girl going through this sort of awakening. We saw many young women and everyone brought something special, but I found that when I was watching Lola’s tape I was just really rooting for her. I felt like a proud mom at the Olympics, waiting to see if she would nail the landing—and she did.
A major new plot point of the show is an annual debutante ball. Why did you add that to the story?
As I was adapting Summer, I was thinking a lot about visual representations of coming of age and how many different cultures celebrate that moment, like a quinceañera or a coming-out ball or a bat mitzvah. To me, [the setting] being this sort of wealthy world, it felt like a great opportunity to bring that to life. And I do love a ball.
How are you feeling about the release of this show on the heels of the To All the Boys films being such massive successes? Does it come with pressure or does that success just give you confidence?
I feel really excited, because I know that the longtime fans of the book have been waiting for this adaptation for many years—the first book came out 13 years ago. I’m excited to give them the thing that they’ve been asking for. I’m not looking to recreate the success of To All the Boys. That was its own moment. I’m just hoping that the original fans of the book will be happy.
Thirteen years is quite a while. It felt like a stab to the heart when Susannah Fisher was talking to Belly about the Olsen twins and Belly said, “Who are they?”
Which, by the way, is accurate.
Brutal. I loved picking up on little nods to teen dramas of the past—I found myself thinking about The O.C., Gossip Girl, and even The Parent Trap in certain moments. How have teen soaps influenced you as a person and a creator?
I’ve always been a big fan of teen stories, obviously, because I’ve been writing them my whole career. There’s something so exciting about that moment in time, and I’m hoping for the show that grown adults can watch it and remember what it was like falling in love for the first time and having this kind of magical summer, and that young people today can watch it and feel seen in some way.
Which of the characters do you see most of yourself in?
It’s funny because when I wrote the book, I was closer to Belly’s age—and now I’m Laurel, her mom’s age.
Laurel is a much bigger character in the show. At one point, she’s talking to a fellow author, and he describes the irony of first having trouble selling a book with a Filipino protagonist—then being expected only to write Filipino protagonists. How much of that came from your experience?
It’s an experience I’ve heard from a lot of artists of color, that for so long people didn’t want to hear their stories, and now suddenly we’re in a moment where people are only wanting to see you as the hyphenate. It’s all very new, this demand for diversity.
You’ve talked about pitching To All the Boys years back and hearing suggestions that Lara Jean be made a white character. Do you feel we’re past that now?
It wasn’t so much that some specific nefarious producer was saying the character should be white—it was that nobody wanted to make the movie with an Asian lead.
Did those conversations go differently for Summer?
Yes, and I think To All the Boys was a big part of that difference. In the teen space we hadn’t seen the lead be an Asian American girl, and that movie was successful. So it was a lot easier to move forward.
There’s a line when Taylor, Belly’s friend, says to her: “There’s more than one story happening here. But you seem to only care about the one where you’re the main character.” That stuck with me.
It’s a bit of a meta moment, because she literally is the main character of the story. But I don’t think it’s just young people—people at any age want to be the main characters of their lives. Belly has never really felt like the main character, and this is her moment when she’s in the center of things. That’s what makes it so exciting and also messy. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she also has really great moments, which is so much of being young and experiencing things for the first time.
Another character tells Belly that no one ever really gets over their first love. Do you agree?
I agree in the sense that you never really forget your first love. I have a stronger memory of high school love than I do of some people in my 20s. There’s something so potent and powerful about being really young, never having been bruised by love before, and going into it so wholeheartedly without fear—you can get a lot more hurt by the experience, but I also think there’s so much you gain. It’s not even just that person you remember, but it’s who you were in that moment.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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