At a New York book party for Jenna Bush, the host, Roland Betts, a long-time friend of the Bush family declared that Jenna had, in the last couple years, matured in “dog years.” In response, Jenna grimaced and looked across at her mother. “Does that mean I’m 39?” she laughed. But Jenna, who is 25, was dressed in a bright red mini-dress and surrounded by girlfriends, also wearing the kind of mini-dresses that only twenty-somethings should wear. She was on her way to an interview with Larry King as part of the whirlwind tour for her book Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope. She has handled the media onslaught of the past week skillfully, coming across during an hour-long interview with Diane Sawyer and on the morning shows as unpretentious, enthusiastic, and appealing.
While at college, Jenna, along with her twin Barbara, became the butt of late-night comedian’s jokes a couple of times for their partying ways. Jenna, who is younger by one minute than her sister, especially seemed to have a rowdy attitude Remember the picture of her sticking out her tongue at the press? But during her years at the University of Texas, and since graduating she has been, as she says, “growing up” and focusing on teaching and writing, the interests she shares with her mother First Lady Laura Bush. She also has mother’s eyes and husky tones.
For a while, Jenna taught in a charter school in D.C., which she says she loved. Then in 2006 she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean as a UNICEF intern documenting the lives of children and teenagers living in poverty. Her book Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope, which she describes as “narrative non-fiction,” is the story of a teen-age mother she grew to know during that year. She met Ana (to protect her privacy, she won’t name the country where she lives) at a community meeting for those living with HIV. Ana, a beautiful 17-year old, stood up before the group, holding her baby, and said, “We are not dying of AIDS, we are living with it. We are survivors.” Jenna, who speaks conversational Spanish, was moved to tears and impressed by the teenager’s strength and courage.
She says they became friends and she spent hours talking with her and learning her story. Ana, whose mother died of AIDS when she was three, was infected at birth. Her father also died of the disease. She lived with a harsh grandmother and was abused by the grandmother’s boy friend. She also spent some time at different children’s centers. Her boyfriend, the father of her daughter, was a young man who also had AIDS, and with whom she could share her secret. So far their baby does not seem to be infected.
Jenna tells Ana’s story skillfully in a straight forward way, through short punchy chapters. The book is also illustrated with photos of Ana’s environment taken by Jenna’s college friend, Mia Baxter. Teenagers should find it a touching and appealing read. Mia and Jenna worked together on the book in an apartment in Panama on the edge of the rain forest. She says she’s a perfectionist and worked extraordinarily hard on her prose– writing and re-writing sometimes for fourteen hours a day. During high school, her mother was her first editor. She would write in the margins of her daughter’s high school papers, “Jenna, please use the active not the passive voice.”
Jenna portrays Ana’s life as difficult and often unhappy but it is not merely the story of a victim. Ana has a strong and optimistic personality, and she is also helped at times by a sympathetic teacher and a concerned social worker. Jenna also explains in a letter to readers, that although Ana’s story is unique, it is also meant to reflect the experiences of many children. Worldwide more than two million children live with HIV/AIDS. The book also includes sections that give information about protecting oneself from the disease as well as ways to get involved in different volunteer activities and also support UNICEF, which will receive profits from the book.
Did Ana ever realize Jenna was President Bush’s daughter? Not for quite a while. Though Jenna said her father was the head of the government, the jefe del gobierno, it was only after Ana once mentioned “Presidente Bush” when he was visiting Latin America, that Jenna explained again and she finally put it together.
In the book’s acknowledgements she thanks her “amazing parents and mi hermana Barbara.” At the party, her sister was so overcome while praising Jenna’s accomplishments that she almost broke down in tears several times. “Lucky, she’s not the one going on Larry King,” Roland Betts declared. Mrs. Bush looked on smiling happily.
After all how much can poll numbers matter if you have two daughters who clearly admire each other — and who can make you so very, very proud?