When Anna and the French Kiss was published in December 2010, no one, least of all its author Stephanie Perkins, was expecting a phenomenon.
“Anna was supposed to be a quiet little book that lived on library shelves and disappeared after a year or two,” she remembers.
And perhaps it would have gone on to languish among barely read copies of other bright, sweet and smart (and often less intensely marketed and decidedly low key) YA reads; but with the right combination of critical attention, author shout-outs (from the likes of Maureen Johnson, John Green and Cassandra Clare) and word of mouth from fans on Goodreads, book blogs and Book Tube, Anna became a fast and fierce favorite of contemporary YA readers.
Then, in September 2011, Perkins released the sort-of sequel, Lola and the Boy Next Door, which cemented the fan frenzy with a crossover world that entwined the lives of new protagonists Lola and Cricket with the much-beloved and obsessed over Anna and Étienne. Even though Perkins never set out do it that way.
“Lola was actually written first (a terrible version of it), so when I set it aside to write Anna, those characters were still on my mind, and I wrote in a lot of parallels,” she remembers. “At first, it was unintentional. But when I saw what I’d done, I was glad to make the connection something purposeful.”
Now, four years since introducing Anna to the world, Perkins is set to release Isla and the Happily Ever After on August 14, focusing on new character Isla (who made a small, but memorable cameo in Anna and the French Kiss) and fan favorite Josh, first seen in Anna as Étienne’s best friend. This closing chapter in the trilogy has inspired the same vibe of intense excitement and speculation that has surrounded final books in series with far heavier ambitions for captivating audiences than Anna ever had.
“Intense is a good word for it,” Perkins says. “I’m so happy and grateful for this—very, very unexpected—support. It still doesn’t feel real. None of this does.”
Rather than follow her predecessors Anna and Lola into the journey of searching for your happily ever after, Isla actually explores what happens after you’ve found it.
“This book is literal as far as the title is concerned—it’s an examination of the idea of happily-ever-after. Unlike Anna and Lola, Isla gets hers in the beginning of the novel,” Perkins explains. “The gorgeous artist that she’s had a crush on for three years actually likes her back! They start dating! It’s fantastic! But, eventually, the reality of the situation kicks in. Because, sometimes that person or thing that we’ve always wanted isn’t what we expected; sometimes we aren’t prepared to deal with what it really is. And sometimes we can’t help but mess it up.”
That instinct to be open with the sometimes gritty aspects of young love is what has made Perkins’s books so appealing, even in a genre that is so often lambasted for being inauthentic and unrelatable.
“I do try to write books with giant happy endings, but I also try to make sure that those endings are earned,” she shares. “My characters—the girls and the guys—both make a lot of mistakes along the way. They’re far from perfect. But I think (and hope) my readers are recognizing themselves in these struggles, and that’s why my characters are easy to root for. We want them to figure it out. We want them to learn and grow, because that gives us hope for ourselves.”
Readers are not only rooting for these characters, they are relating to them, too.
While Anna is generally sweet, smart and quietly brave and Lola is rebellious, creative and bold, Isla, Perkins says, “is so shy that she can barely speak around Josh.” “She’s bookish and introverted, lacking in self-confidence. But she’s incredibly kindhearted; and a very loyal friend.”
There is both a girl and guy for every reader, as evidenced by the many Anna, Lola and Isla posts that have popped up on Tumblr, not to mention the fan art inspired by Étienne, Cricket and Josh. Readers see themselves in these heroines (and see the kinds of boys they want to date in their counterparts—and vice versa) making engagement in the narrative that much deeper.
That commitment to the stories and to the work that Perkins creates was brought to even sharper light when, in May 2013, she shared a short post on her blog, telling readers that the expected release date for Isla had been pushed back an entire year, to 2014. She then opened up about the diagnosed depression she has been living with since high school. In the post, Perkins related that “the strength of it comes and goes” but that her work had greatly suffered for a particularly rough couple of years.
Fans flocked to the blog and to social media to share their own stories and well wishes for the author.
“The outpouring of support and love and understanding that came from opening up has meant more to me than anything anyone could say about my books,” Perkins shares. “Depression makes you feel alone and helpless and ashamed. I no longer feel that way about myself. I know I’m not alone, because I’ve met hundreds of people who have been where I have been. They’ve given me strength and hope. By speaking publicly about it, I hope I’m giving them some of my own strength in return.”
Of course, despite the setback, Anna and Lola continued to be well-received and well-reviewed, with fans admiring Perkins’s ability to deftly weave the lives of her characters. But, for her, the hardest part of writing was never in the plot. It was in herself. And that mind frame comes into play in Isla.
“Weaving was never the challenge. Their stories have enough natural overlap that they were easy to connect—the characters are often friends or live in the same cities. It makes sense that they’d be popping in and out of each other’s stories,” Perkins says. “The greatest challenge was my own self-confidence. It’s not a coincidence that this is a serious issue in Isla. Lola was a tough book to finish, for several reasons, and it shattered my confidence. Isla and I had to build it back up together. For a long time, I was frustrated because she was so timid. It took me ages to realize that this was her journey. That this was how she had to grow, and that this was how I had to grow, too.”
That evolution is definitely showing up in her work. Up next for Perkins, who author Tahereh Mafi dubbed “The Jane Austen of our generation” is… a teen slasher horror novel? Talk about growth! “Writing something so dark [and] so funny has been a blast,” Perkins says.
But, don’t worry; she’s keeping her pen firmly planted in romance, too, with My True Love Gave to Me (expected October 14, 2014). The anthology is filled with what Perkins calls “swoony holiday love stories” from bestselling YA authors like Rainbow Rowell, David Levithan and Jenny Han. The stories, twelve in all, are “ridiculously phenomenal,” she says. “I’m so proud of how it came out.” And, you’ll be pleased to know, Perkins is always considering more crossover series.
In the meantime, though, there is still one huge question that needs answering: is Perkins Team Étienne, Team Cricket or Team Josh?
“I’d flirt with Étienne, crush on Cricket and date (and marry!) Josh.”
Sigh… wouldn’t we all.
Photos c/o Penguin; Written by Kerri Jarema