When Kody Keplinger’s first book, The DUFF: Designated Ugly Fat Friend was published in 2010, the author was 18 years old. Since then, she has gone on to write three other young adult titles—Secrets and Lies (two e-novellas), A Midsummer’s Nightmare, and Shut Out—as well as a middle grade book, The Swift Boys and Me. On February 20, her first book reached audiences around the country when it premiered as a major motion picture, The DUFF.
An avid reader, Keplinger was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, a disorder that causes legal blindness. Last fall, she wrote about the important role honors like the Schneider Family Book Awards play in ensuring people with disabilities see themselves in the stories they read. Keplinger shared her thoughts with American Libraries on the appeal of YA literature, encouragement for young writers, and how librarians can improve services for people with disabilities.
What was the inspiration for The DUFF?
When I was a senior in high school, I overheard an acquaintance of mine talking about guys using the word “DUFF.” I didn’t know what it meant, so I asked, and when I learned it meant designated, ugly, fat friend, I was totally taken aback. Jokingly, I told my friends I would write a book called “The DUFF.” It became an ongoing, inside joke. Until one day, the characters just sort of popped into my head, and I had to start writing it.
What is it about the story that you think people respond to?
I think everyone—no matter what you look like—has felt unattractive or uninteresting or just “less than” at some point. And that’s what being the DUFF is all about. I’ve gotten letters from girls and women (and a few guys!) of all shapes and sizes and backgrounds telling me they feel like the DUFF amongst their friends. It’s not about being fat or ugly, in reality. It’s just about feeling insecure, and we’ve all been there.
How does it feel having The DUFF become a film?
It’s incredibly surreal. It’s something I always dreamed would happen, even as a kid, but not something I ever actually expected to happen. Sometimes I still have to stop and pinch myself.
Tell us a little about the journey of getting your work published at such a young age. What kind of advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I’ve loved to write since I can remember. By the time I was 17, I had a few (really terrible) drafts of novels under my belt. So I began to research publishing. I didn’t think I had a chance of getting anything published, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to research. Then I wrote The DUFF, and several friends encouraged me to pursue it. I knew it was a long shot, but I sent out some letters to agents. I didn’t mention my age. I wanted my work to speak for itself. To my surprise, I got an offer of representation, and a few weeks later, the book sold!
My advice to young writers is to go easy on themselves. I hear from so many teenagers who say they want to be published by 18. I think these kinds of deadlines are more problematic than helpful. Young writers put so much pressure on themselves, and publishing is so unpredictable. Instead, I encourage them to set deadlines on the things they can control, like, “I want to finish a first draft by graduation.” Don’t worry so much about publication just yet. Instead, focus on being the best writer you can be.
What is it about YA lit that gets such a large response from a variety of readers?
Part of YA’s broad appeal has to do with the fact that we’ve all been teenagers, so there’s something universally relatable about the genre. And also, right now, many people in their 20s are forced into a state of prolonged adolescence. They graduate from college and often have to move back home because there aren’t enough jobs. This makes the stories of adolescents—and their struggles—still relevant. It’s no longer just teens who identify with the protagonists in YA. Plus, YA books are often fast-paced and exciting. Who doesn’t love that?
You’re pretty active on social media and in interacting with your readers. Is that something that is important to you?
Yes, communicating with readers is very important to me. When I started writing The DUFF, my whole purpose was to be as honest as possible. That honesty isn’t just in my writing but also in my communication with readers. I love hearing their insights on things. It’s been really fun to see my stories through their eyes.
Tell us your favorite story about librarians or libraries.
When I was in high school, my academic team coach was also the school librarian; I was pretty close to her. I got into YA novels during high school, and she knew I loved certain authors. Anytime she got a new book in—sometimes even before she put into the system—she’d let me take it out. One of those books was Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. She knew I loved Anderson’s Speak—it was something we’d discussed many times—so when Wintergirls came in, she actually let me borrow her personal copy. She also introduced me to the work of Sara Zarr and Carrie Ryan. I discovered so many great books because of her. Many of those authors are ones I continue to adore today.
What kind of services would you like to see libraries offer to people with vision disabilities? What pitfalls you see with how services are offered now?
When I was a kid, there was this strange, negative bias toward non-visual reading. I think this still exists today. For some reason, people don’t consider having something read aloud to you as “real reading.” I’ve even been told listening to an audiobook isn’t “real reading.” This is obviously problematic as it excludes those with visual and reading disabilities, and it also shames those who may be auditory learners over visual learners. I was lucky that my mother never had this attitude and read to me well into my teen years; even still, when I visit her, we’ll read together. It was her reading to me that led me to audiobooks, which is how I do most of my reading today. If teachers and librarians did this regularly, for teens as well as kids, I think we’d begin to see that attitude about real reading change, and we might even see an increased interest in reading overall. I’d love to see libraries implement reading programs for older kids and teens, maybe doing weekly read-aloud sessions, inviting not just those with disabilities, but anyone who wants to listen. I think everyone enjoys being read to, and if we normalize that, then we can foster more readers both with and without disability.