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Jenna Bush Hager has two March 2024 Read With Jenna picks

Jenna says she loves both books because she has personal connections to both of them.
RWJ march book pikcs
/ Source: TODAY

TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager has a surprise up her sleeve for her next Read With Jenna picks.

In honor of the five-year anniversary of her book club, Jenna chose two books for her March selections: "The Great Divide," by Cristina Henriquez and "The House on Mango Street," by Sandra Cisneros.

Jenna says she loves both books because she has personal connections to both — she remembers reading "The House on Mango Street" when she was in high school, and "The Great Divide" reminds her of when she lived in Panama in the mid-2000s.

"One thing you may not know about me is that I lived in Panama, in 2005, 2006," Jenna says. "So when I read this book, I was filled with memories of my time there. You will love these characters — it is epic and lovely. There are so many different storylines that all come together at the end, which is one of my favorite ways to read and fall in love with a story."

Henriquez tells "The Great Divide" is inspired by Henriquez's trips to her father's home country of Panama to visit her family that began when she was 8 months old and have continued almost every year since.

“The Great Divide” by Cristina Henriquez

"We would go every summer and spend time there in Panama. Often on those trips, my parents would take my brother and sister and I out to the canal, and we would sit there in the blazing sun and watch ships kind of make their way through the locks," she says. "It wasn't until I got older that I became fascinated with it and saw that maybe there was the potential for a novel in it."

"Panama is so much a part of me," she continues. "And it’s why I write about it in my fiction, because it’s a part of me, and because writing about it helps me feel more connected to it."

Through the perspectives of nearly a dozen characters — those from Panama and those who came from all over the world to help construct the Panama Canal in the early 1900s — Henriquez shares what she calls "the humanity behind the Panama Canal" through her historical fiction novel.

"It was more just this realization that the canal was such a defining part of Panama, but also that it was this very seminal moment in American history. And that story, as often as it had been told, was really kind of told from either a political perspective or from an engineering perspective — you know, everybody knows it as the greatest engineering feat in the world," Henriquez says.

"I wanted to get beyond that and just talk about the things you don't see in the history books, which, to me, was just about the ordinary people who lived through this experience, this monumental thing that was unfolding at that time and what was it like to live through that," she adds.

Henriquez says she had been carrying around the idea of writing a novel about the Panama Canal for about 15 years, and it took her about five years to research and write "The Great Divide" once she started putting pen to paper.

Henriquez describes getting to share the monthly pick with Cisnero's "The House on Mango Street" as "really special."

"That book was transformative for me, especially when I was first in graduate school trying to become a writer. It opened me up in so many ways and gave me permission really to write about some of the things that I write about now," she says. "And Sandra herself has always been such a hero and a mentor figure to me. And it’s really special to be able to do this with her."

Jenna says she also looks back fondly on the time she first read "The House on Mango Street."

“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros

"I have loved 'The House on Mango Street' since I first read it in high school because I feel like Sandra Cisneros writes in such a poetic, gorgeous way, and the character of Esperanza has stayed with me all of those years," Jenna says. "But it is particularly meaningful to me because I read it when I was young, and then I taught it to my middle schoolers when I was a teacher in Baltimore."

"The House on Mango Street" was originally published in 1984 and tells the story of Esperanza, a Mexican-American girl growing up in a Hispanic neighborhood of Chicago, through a series of vignettes.

"I’m excited that Jenna is shining a light on 'The House on Mango Street,' a book that, forty years later, is still doing very powerful spirit work, especially in these difficult times," Cisneros said in a statement to "It’s a book about looking around and seeing that the world is unfinished and in need of repair and it reminds readers that there’s something that they can do about it."

Erroll McDonald, Cisnero's longtime editor, congratulated the author on her "magnificent and enduring achievement" in a statement to

“Forty years on, now that it’s canonical — an essential work of American literature translated into more than 20 languages and read by millions the world over — we do 'The House on Mango Street' justice to remember when it burst upon the scene with striking originality, giving voice to the voiceless, a young Latina questing for freedom and independence while acknowledging the complex richness of her own humanity,” McDonald said.