For YA author Jenny Han, the film adaptation of her book, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, isn’t just a turning point in her career — it’s also the first time she’s seen an Asian American girl star in a teen movie.
“I really didn’t get to see myself in the stories,” Han, 37, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue when describing the lack of diversity in the books and films from her childhood.
That’s beginning to change, though, thanks in part to Han. In the eponymous teen romance film, which debuted on Netflix on Aug. 17, protagonist Lara Jean is played by Asian American actress Lana Condor.
“For me, [writing] To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was a chance to make a new modern-day classic,” Han says about creating Lara Jean, who is half Korean and half white. “Take Anne of Green Gables, where you have a character who is bright and optimistic and spunky and all those things we love in a classic, young heroine. [You] put her in the now, and write [a character] readers can really relate to and fall in love with in the same way that I did, but bring that fresh perspective to it.”
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, an “old-fashioned, throwback kind of girl,” says Han, who prefers to spend her time reading and hanging with her two sisters — until the letters she wrote to past loves are mailed out. Drama and a fake relationship ensue after the first boy she ever kissed, Peter (played by Noah Centineo in the film), and her sister’s boyfriend, Josh (played by Israel Broussard) read their letters.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was released just two days after the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians — the first film in 25 years to star an all Asian American cast since The Joy Luck Club.
“The shift is happening because there are more creators of color who are telling their stories,” Han says. “When you have that, you have someone who is really invested in seeing the story told the way that they imagined it.”
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She later adds, “There is real power in seeing yourself as a hero. Because then you believe that you can do anything.”
But that doesn’t mean all directors were eager to stay true to Han’s book. Han tells PEOPLE she turned down initial film offers because some studios wanted Lara Jean to be played by a white actress.
“It was a difficult position,” Han explains. “You have to say no again and again.”
Eventually, Will Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, picked up the film rights and later partnered with Awesomeness Films.
“At that point, it was great because we all had the same vision for it,” she says, “and the fact that the lead was Asian American wasn’t seen as a liability. It was something they were excited about.”
Han explains that her biggest hope is that more people of color will get starring roles.
“I just hope that if movies like mine and Crazy Rich Asians do well, we’ll see more getting made,” Han says. “That means more points of view and more stories told.”
And Lara Jean’s story is a fascinating one. While her Korean heritage is an important part of her identity, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is firstly a love story.
“I think that most young adult stories are about firsts and, to me as a writer, I think that firsts are the most compelling thing to write about,” the author says. “I think as you get older, the stuff in the middle can get kind of muddied, a little blurry, but the stuff that you experience the first time is the most interesting, the most exciting.”
Han adds, “The first time you fall [in love], you haven’t had your heart broken yet so you kind of dive into it with an open heart.”
It’s while falling in love that Lara Jean learns the most important lesson in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
“You don’t have to you change yourself,” Han explains, “for somebody else to like you.”
For more about Jenny Han, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.