Sisters First: Stories From Our Wild and Wonderful Life

Girl Scouts of Northeast Kansas and Northwest Missouri, in partnership with Rainy Day Books and The Independent, will present Sisters First: An Evening with Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Pierce Bush reception and book event on November 2nd. It will begin with an exclusive meet and greet at CBIZ and continue at Unity Temple with a conversation with Vivien Jennings about their new book, Sisters First: Stories From Our Wild and Wonderful Life. Renny Arensberg and Mary Jorgenson are the co-chairmen of the event. 

Born into a political dynasty, fraternal twins Jenna and Barbara grew up in the public eye. As small children, they watched their grandfather become president. Just 12 years later, they stood by their father’s side when he took the same oath. They spent their college years being trailed by Secret Service and chased by the paparazzi, with every teenage mistake making national headlines. (Yes, many of us still recall the Mexican restaurant incident!)

J&B author photo (c) Nathan R. Congleton

Yet both women have forged their own impressive, professional paths. Barbara is the CEO and co-founder of Global Health Corps, an organization that is building the next generation of global health leaders and problem solvers who share a common belief: health is a human right. Jenna is a correspondent on NBC’s Today Show, a contributor to NBC Nightly News and an editor-at-large for Southern Living magazine. She also is the author of the New York Times bestseller Ana’s Story: A Journey of Hope and is coauthor with her mother, Laura Bush, of the children’s books Our Great Big Backyard and Read All About It!

From the very beginning of this beautifully written book, one is aware of the twins’ incredible closeness and unconditional love and support of each other. Wrote Jenna:  “We remain the finishers of each other’s sentences, the conveyors of each other’s dreams and desires. Again and again in all the years since, we have been the first person for each other, the one who so often knew what was in the other’s heart without a word.” As Barbara recalled, they were often compared and supposed to be “the inverse of each other, a yin and yang, always slightly at odds. The shy twin versus the loud twin; the smart twin versus the funny twin; the color-in-the-lines twin versus the creative twin. Yet I always felt that Jenna and I could simultaneously embody all these characteristics – both be smart and creative and funny in ways that were distinct and our own.” 

The style of the writing throughout the book is warm and conversational, jumping from the past to the present. Chapters are divided up into topics, and the two women take turns telling their personal stories. In anticipation of their Kansas City visit, we had the opportunity to speak with Jenna about the recent book release and the process the sisters took to complete the project in just under a year. The sisters had always talked about writing a book together. “We had the idea for this book after the last election season. We came up with the idea last fall, and really felt like this was the time to do it. We went on long walks together brainstorming all of the things we could write about. We wrote separately, and a part of what made us do it in such a sate time was all of those brainstorming sessions. The editing process is what took the most time. A lot of our memories happened at the exact same age.” Once the girls finished their individual writing and they began the editing process, they realized that they individually wrote about a lot of the same memories. “The biggest work was not the writing – we knew exactly what we wanted to write from the beginning,” said Jenna. “All along we worked together, we worked separately and then we worked together.” 

And what is especially appealing about Sisters First is how down-to-earth and approachable both Barbara and Jenna seem to be. And that is, most likely, due to their upbringing. Wrote Barbara: “My parents’ single-minded determination to de-emphasize that there was anything unduly special about being a Bush meant that I didn’t understand why my name might make me different.” Having asked Jenna what her parents thought of the book, we were delighted to hear what a big role they played in the process. “A lot of our family has read the book. Our mom and dad gave us edits. They are both avid readers and had a lot of great opinions to share. Earlier this summer we sat with our dad in Maine and we read through the entire book – page by page. He is a meticulous editor. We would read each chapter that we wrote and he we would give us his suggestions. We did the same thing with our mom.” “They didn’t try and change our opinions in the book. Our parents want us to have our own opinions. They were reviewing our grammar and word choice.” It was important all along for both girls to portray the positive impact family, sisterhood and friends could have on a person’s life.

Book cover

In addition, Jenna and Barbara’s grandparents, known as Ganny and Gampy, remain sticklers for modesty and manners and try to impart important life lessons even to this day. In the chapter “The Enforcer,” Jenna recalled a story of a recent tennis match that she organized at Barbara and former President George H.W. Bush’s home in Maine. Wrote Jenna: “I put on a show. After missing a shot, I dropped down to the clay court to display my athleticism: first doing a plank and then a push-up. When I hit a particularly impressive shot, I did the worm – a body-shaking dance move where I shimmied along the ground – and received lots of cheers.” A few weeks later, Jenna received a letter from her Ganny, expressing her disappointment. “Like a lawyer building her case, Ganny recited every unsportsmanlike infraction…She pointed out that Gampy’s own mother, who was an avid athlete, a gracious (not to mention great) tennis player and self-effacing woman, would have despised a display like mine.” Jenna was delighted to share that they sent an advanced copy to their grandmother who said “she loved the book!”

Jenna and Barbara’s life’s journey has been a nomadic one, from Midland, Texas, to Dallas, to a stint in Washington when their grandfather was president, to the governor’s mansion in Austin. And then back to Washington, D.C. and the White House, when both girls went off to college – University of Texas for Jenna, Yale University for Barbara. 

Although both girls have traveled the world for pleasure and for their busy careers, they have settled into their own homes in New York City, just four blocks from each other. Jenna is married to Henry Hager, and they have two little girls, Mila and Poppy. Barbara’s work with Global Health Corps takes her to far-flung countries such as Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, and Malawi and even parts of the United States in order to work towards health equity and access. And her personal life? According to Jenna, Barbara “is married. To her work, Global Health Corps. Oh, and she has a nice boyfriend, too.”

The sisters’ individual anecdotes about their parents, their two sets of grandparents and their heartbreaks and successes as children and young adults are humorous, moving, self-depracating, and extremely honest. Both Barbara and Jenna have managed to transcend the “wild Bush girls” stereotype and become accomplished young women, who have lived and loved well – with just a hint of their signature mischief still intact. “We hope that women – or whoever reads the book – take away that if we lift other women up, that we will all get this empowerment from friends, sisters, colleagues… whomever. We hope that other women read this book to lift up other women in whatever way they can.”

Did You Know?

*Girl Scouts is the largest leadership organization for girls. One of every two women was a Girl Scout at some point in her life.

*Girl Scouts of NE Kansas and NW Missouri serves 23,000 girls members (K-12th grades) and supports 9,000 adult volunteers across its 47 county council.

Girl Scouts create:

*50 percent of female business leaders

*80 percent of female tech leaders

*76 percent of female U.S. Senators

*100 percent of female U.S. Secretaries of State

By Ann Slegman and Jenny Owens Hughes
Also featured in the October 28, 2017 issue.