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As many of you will already know, we recently announced that we were the official UK charity partner for The DUFF movie which is currently playing at major cinemas across the UK. As part of the partnership, we were given an opportunity to interview Kody Keplinger; the author of the original ‘The DUFF’ book. We talk writing, The DUFF, bullying and appearances – along with everything else in between.
Hope you enjoy!
Ditch the Label: When and why did you become a writer?
Kody Keplinger: In a way, I guess you could say I’ve always been a writer. One of my earliest memories is of sitting at my mother’s typewriter in her office. There was no paper in the typewriter. But I was clicking buttons anyway, telling her the story I thought I was writing. As I got older, that turned into actual writing. I was always coming up with new story ideas and writing them down. This has been my dream job since I was very young. I can’t imagine not writing.
Ditch the Label: Where did the inspiration for The Duff come from?
Kody Keplinger: I was in my high school cafeteria one morning when I overheard a girl at my table talking about her weekend and how a guy had referred to a friend of hers as a “DUFF.” It was the first time I’d heard the word, but as soon as I learned what it meant – the designated, ugly, fat friend – I was sure it was me. That I’d be the DUFF of the group. But after talking to my friends about it, all of them thought they were the Duff. Every single one of us was sure it was us. When I realized this, I jokingly said I’d write a book called The DUFF one day. I never thought I’d actually do it, but later that semester inspiration struck and that joke became a reality.
Ditch the Label: Did you have any involvement with the film making process?
Kody Keplinger: No. I wasn’t involved with the film making process; however, I did get to visit the set and meet the cast, which was such an honor. It was especially exciting to meet Mae Whitman — because, funny story, I’ve wanted her to play Bianca since I wrote the book in 2009.
Ditch the Label: What do you think of the finished film adaption – is it as you imagined it when you were writing?
Kody Keplinger: I love the movie! I’ve seen it several times now, and it delights me every time. With that being said, the book and the film are a bit different, as most book-to-film adaptations are. But the themes of friendship and self-acceptance are still there – and Mae Whitman’s take on Bianca is spot on!
Ditch the Label: In The Duff, there is a strong message of self-acceptance for Bianca, which will resonate with a lot of young women. Do you think this can just as easily be applied to teen guys?
Kody Keplinger: Oh, it most definitely can. In fact, I know that it has. I’ve gotten several emails from male readers who have read the book (usually because a female friend made them) who have written to me after because they related to Bianca. One of my close male friends read it and told me it inspired him to be more open and less ashamed about his struggles with mental illness, proving the self-acceptance goes far beyond body image. I’ve also heard from boys who saw the movie and had similar reactions. Guys deal with some of this stuff, too, and I definitely think the message can – and does – resonate with them.
Ditch the Label: Have you ever personally experienced bullying or prejudice? If so, how did you deal with it?
Kody Keplinger: I was an overweight, blind teenager – it would have been a miracle if I hadn’t dealt with at least some bullying. I was lucky, though. It wasn’t as bad as you might have expected. The majority of the bullying I dealt with actually came from a close friend, someone I trusted who would manipulate me, put me down, and randomly ignore me, leaving me on constant eggshells for reasons I never understood. I think that sort of quiet bullying happens a lot. At the time, I had no idea how to deal with it. I just let it happen until graduation. If I had to do it over again, I would have stepped away from that friendship early on, trusting that I’d find other friends who would like me. Teenage Kody didn’t have that kind of confidence, though.
Ditch the Label: You are the co founder of ‘Disability in Kidlit’ – can you tell us about that?
Kody Keplinger: Disability in KidLit is a website devoted to all things disability and how they relate to young adult and middle grade fiction. Our goal is to provide both a space for disabled readers and writers to discuss their experience as well as to be a resource for able-bodied authors and readers who want to know more. We’ve reviewed books, had discussion posts about specific issues, tackled problematic tropes, and even had disabled people write about their middle or high school experiences.
Ditch the Label: How important do you think diverse and positive role models are to young people?
Kody Keplinger: It’s insanely important. I think it’s easy to get discouraged – especially when you’re younger – when you don’t see anyone like you being successful or doing the things you aspire to. As a teen (and still now to a degree) I was always incredibly excited when I heard about a blind or legally blind person who had become successful. Because that meant I could be successful, too. I’d imagine a lot of young people feel that way, whether their disabled, part of the LGBT community, a PoC, grew up poor, etc. We look for role models we can relate to.
Ditch the Label: We know that bullied teens as young as 13 are considering invasive surgery. What message would you give to young people who may feel pressured to change themselves in order to fit in?
Kody Keplinger: God, it’s hard. I try to think if there’s anything anyone could have said to me at that age, when I was feeling awful about my body. I guess the first thing I’d do is remind them that, right now, their bodies are still growing and developing, and changing them at this stage just isn’t a good idea. And then I’d tell them that high school ends, but whatever they change about their appearance lasts forever. So if you do it for other people – and not for yourself – you’re just going to be unhappy in the long run. Instead of focusing on the things you dislike about yourself, focus on the things you do like. Maybe that’s your hair or the way your legs are shaped or your sense of style, etc.
Ditch the Label: In addition to supporting those who have been bullied, we strongly advocate education and support for perpetrators. We know that many are dealing with their own complex issues that may not be immediately obvious. Do you think this is an effective approach to tackling the issue of bullying and prejudice?
Kody Keplinger: I think it might be the most effective approach, personally. Because, yes, in my experience, those who bully are often taking their own pain out on others. I know there were times in elementary school where some girls were picking on me, making me feel like the ugliest, stupidest girl in class. So when I found a girl who seemed like she could be lower on the totem pole than me, I picked on her. It made me feel like I wasn’t the worst. I regret that now. But I think that’s a common practice. So it just makes sense that the best way to stop bullying from occurring is to find the perpetrators and find out why. There is always a why.