Q&A with Kody Keplinger, author of THE DUFF

 the-duff-final-movie-posterKody Keplinger 2014
Melissa Seymour: Hi, Kody! Thanks so much for chatting with us. Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Kody Keplinger: Thanks for having me! I’m Kody Keplinger, and I am the author of five books for kids and teens, including The DUFF, which was just turned into a major motion picture!

MS: Can you describe the moment you discovered your book THE DUFF was going to be turned into a film? What was running through your mind? What did you do?

KK: So, I don’t really know if there was a “moment.”  The film option actually sold before the book was published, and while I was of course very excited, but I was also really trying not to get my hopes up, because an option isn’t a guarantee.  For a couple years after that, there were little steps.  CBS signed on, for instance, and I would start to hope a little more with each turn.  Then, at the end of 2013, and all of a sudden it was real. I got the call that we were going into production, and I don’t even remember how I reacted. It was this thing that I knew COULD happen for years, and all of a sudden, it was! I think I was in shock, honestly. I really didn’t believe it was real until I visited the set last year.

MS: Why do you think high school is such a difficult time? Why is it so important to write from an honest perspective when tackling a story set in high school?

KK: I mean, I had a hard time in both high school and middle school. I think it’s just to be expected when you’re forcing a lot of people – going through the most awkward years of their lives – into a building together. And, as a kid, I always had this fear that it was just me. That I was the only awkward one. I found comfort in books by authors like Judy Blume, which were just so honest and real. I remember reading her novels and thinking she had read my mind.  It was so honest and made me feel like I wasn’t alone. As an author, that’s been my goal from day one.  To write honestly. To show the good the bad and the ugly in my work. Because if it makes even one other person feel like they aren’t alone, it’s worth it.

MS: How do you get into the minds of your characters? Do you do anything specific to immerse yourself in that world? Is there anything strange or unique about your process?

KK: For me, the best way to really bring myself back to my high school years is to put on the music I listened to at the time. I have a huge playlist on my computer that has all the songs I loved throughout high school. I listen to just a few, and all those awkward, angsty feelings come right back.

MS: Now that THE DUFF film is out, the word has become much more well known. Are you worried about any negative effects that might stem from this? What about high school students using this word to bully others?

I want to be clear on one thing first – which is that I didn’t actually create this word. It was a word that was being used in my high school. It’s been out there for a long time. It actually got popular when a guy on a reality dating show in the early 2000s used it.  My intention in writing the book was to reclaim it. Because if it was being used in my high school, it was being used it others, and I wanted to turn it into something that was positive, not a weapon. I know some are concerned about the word becoming popular now. But I think if the movie or the book is how teens are being introduced to the word (if it hasn’t already been used in their school before now) then my hope is that the point of the movie and book will help counteract that. Because everyone is somebody’s DUFF. I mean, if Kylie Jenner can wear a shirt proclaiming she’s felt like a DUFF, then we all have.  And if we are all DUFFs, how is it an insult?

MS: There were some major differences between THE DUFF book and film. If you could change one thing about the movie, what would it be? Why?

Yes, the book and the film are different, but I really love the film and I think it gets the spirit of the book right.  The one thing I’d change? I’d add in more of Jess and Casey.  I liked the film’s take on those characters (I loved writing those characters in the book, too) and I’d love to see more of them.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

Tina. Effing. Fey.  I have loved Tina Fey since I was a little girl and she was on SNL. But as I got older, I really started to see her as the amazing role model she is. Not only is she funny, but she’s such a smart, talented writer. And she’s such a great representative of a woman in charge. And she’s unapologetic about being seen as “bossy.” I love her.  I want to grow up and be as badass as she is one day.

MS: Thanks so much for chatting with us, Kody! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

KK: Well, for those who have read The DUFF, I want to let you know that there is a companion novel coming out called LYING OUT LOUD. It releases April 28, and Bianca and Wesley play a role in the story! So I hope y’all will enjoy that!


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Visit Kody’s author site here: http://kodykeplinger.com/

Twitter: @Kody_Keplinger


Q&A with Ellen Oh, author and creator of #WeNeedDiverseBooks


Melissa Seymour: Hi Ellen! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Ellen Oh: I used to be a lawyer and a college instructor, but I took a long sabbatical from teaching to write my YA fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy Series. Prophecy, Book 1, came out in January of 2013 with Warrior, Book 2, out this past December. And the final book, King, will be released in December of this year.

MS: Why did you decide to start the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign?

EO: I’ve been a long time advocate for diversity in publishing ever since I started writing. Especially because of how important I think diversity is in childrens literature. I’ve written many posts about the importance of diversity, have gotten lots of ugly hate mail and nasty trollish comments, but I never let it stop me. The small group of diverse YA authors all like to talk about this problem, but it always felt like no one was listening. I wanted to do something really big to catch the attention of the public and the media. And then the whole all white male BookCon panel hit the news and the internet was awash in indignation. So I pulled together this fantastic group of authors, publishers, and bloggers and told them this idea I had for a photo heavy hashtag campaign. They were all onboard and it was through brainstorming that we came up with the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and planned our date and our campaign, which was supposed to be May 19th. But then BookCon released their guest list – and it was 30 white authors and a cat. I remember the shock and then the anger, and I went back to my team and said, we can’t wait. There was a lot of frantic rushing around and we announced our campaign the weekend before May 1st, the campaign start date. People were so behind the idea that they started using the hashtag two days before the event! And as the submissions rolled in, filled with poignant stories and cute pictures, the hashtag campaign just took off from there.

MS: What’s your goal with this campaign? Why are diverse characters and books important?

EO: I have 3 daughters and trying to find a book that they could relate to was not easy. I remember when I was growing up, how sad I was not to have any of my own heroes to look up to. It bothered me that not much had changed since I was little. But however I felt before doesn’t even compare to my feelings now that we’ve seen all the desperate wishes of so many underrepresented people. Particularly the LGBTQIA group. It hurt me to read how desperately they wanted and needed to see themselves in books at the age where they needed them the most – those young teen years. So now more than ever, I have come to realize that books can save lives. Especially diverse books.

MS: Have you had a good response with #WeNeedDiverseBooks?

EO: Oh my gosh! When I said I wanted to have a big impact, I never dreamed it would be as big as it actually got! I’m still in a daze at the response! And the submissions keep coming because people need to be heard!

MS: In what ways can people support this movement?

EO: Publishing is a business. We have got to support the diverse books and authors out there now in order for more to keep getting published. So go out there and buy diverse books or ask your local library to order diverse books! The librarians have been simply amazing in championing our cause. I adore librarians!

MS: What’s up and coming for #WeNeedDiverseBooks?

EO: We have 2 big announcements that we will be making at our BookCon Panel so you will have to wait until May 31st! But we are really excited about them!

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

EO: I’m a huge Oprah fan. She’s kind of my idol. Not because I want to be a talk show host, but because she’s such a savvy business person. And she did it despite being a minority and a woman.


Follow Ellen Oh on Twitter: @elloecho

Q&A with NYT Best Selling Author, Andrea Beaty


Melissa Seymour: Hi, Andrea! Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Andrea Beaty: I am the author of ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER, IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT, ATTACK OF THE FLUFFY BUNNIES and other books for kids. I previously studied biology and computer science and worked in IT for many years. Now, I write books about wonder, passion, and killer alien rabbits. I also visit schools around the world (in person and via skype) to share my passion for creativity, writing, and books.

MS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Why?

AB: I never set out to be a writer. I was about thirty when I came to it. Before that, I was busy exploring everything that interested me: biology, computers, literature, history, music. Everything. When I started reading books with my kids, I started getting ideas for stories. My exploration ultimately made me a writer. It gave me stories to tell. That is why I tell kids to read everything they can and to explore all the things that interest them. Everything is connected. You never know where it might lead!

MS: We absolutely love Rosie Revere, Engineer! Why did you decide to write this book?

AB: Thank you. I also love this kid. She is smart and curious and passionate. (This seems to be a theme in my books.) I wrote the story after I saw David Robert’s illustrations for IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. David is simply brilliant.

The students in Miss Lila Greer’s classroom intrigued me. As in any group of kids, they have their own personalities and talents. I was especially curious about Rosie after I realized that she never reveals both of her eyes in the book. She shyly tries to hide behind her swooping bangs.

I knew I wanted her to be an engineer because I figured she would have lots of great ideas. (And I wanted to see what wonders David would help her create.) As always, his illustrations were amazing. As with IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT, the illustrations are deceptively simple looking, but they contain so much humor and funny hidden details. I have read each book hundreds of times and still find things I had not seen before. Also, there are lots of tiny references between the two books. Kids love finding them.

MS: What was it like finding out that your book was a New York Times Best Seller?

AB: It was terrific affirmation that Rosie was reaching kids. Authors and illustrators send our books out into the world and have no clue how a book is doing for six months and often longer. I knew immediately that Rosie was connecting from the wonderful letters parents sent. Rosie inspired their kids to start inventing. They also wanted to hear the book over and over again. The NYT list was proof that lots of families were finding the book.

One of the most exciting things for me is that Rosie helps kids embrace the idea that it’s okay to fail as long as you don’t give up. That is an enormously big deal. Kids are so often their own toughest critics and they shut down if things don’t go the way they envision. Rosie shows them that it’s okay. Brush off the disappointment. Figure out what you can do differently. Learn from it and enjoy the process. And have fun! Joy is such a key to learning.

It is also thrilling to see so many girls read ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER and immediately decide that they want to be engineers. For many, it will be a passing idea. Personally, I had 7,000 careers before I was twelve. But for some, it will become a lifelong goal. And in either case, for engineer to be on that list of options for girls is terrific!

MS: Why are strong girl characters so important in children’s literature?

AB: We read literature for lots of reasons. It amuses us. It takes us to places and times we can’t visit on our own. It builds empathy. At its best, literature teaches us how to deal with life.

We can see ourselves in characters that are not exactly like us. That is why boys also connect to ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER and girls like IGGY PECK, ARCHITECT. But when a reader sees a character that is like them, it makes the story much more real.

Identifying with a character lets us envision ourselves facing and overcoming the same problems. If a shy girl named Rosie can overcome doubt, create a crazy cheese-copter, and deal with its failure, maybe a girl reading the book can make an invention to help someone. That belief makes her stronger and braver and bolder. That belief sets loose an energy that knows no bounds. I truly believe that when we embolden and empower girls, we change the world.

MS: How do you think women are represented in the media? Do you think this affects girls?

AB: The way media represents women is destructive and it affects our girls and our boys. I think it is a mistake to focus solely on how this affects girls. Both must have realistic views of themselves and each other. Neither can develop a realistic view of women (or men for that matter) based on the unattainable, hyper-photoshopped mutant models presented in advertising and the media.

When my daughter and son were very young, I made it my job at every single trip to the grocery store to point out the crazy stupid magazine covers. It was tedious and annoying and crazy-making, but it taught them to question the messages they see all around them. It is absurd and warped that anyone should have to teach their kids what women (and men) really look like. Our species has survived for a long, long time without having to do that. And yet, here we are.

I do take heart—a little—that people are starting to wake up about this. The backlash to the Princess Merida changes by Disney made my heart sing. Ultimately, though, we control this. We have got to pony up and stop buying into the nonsense. And that means stop supporting magazines, toys, movies, video games, or TV shows that distort how women are portrayed. Stand up and call people out on it. Money drives this whole thing. Stop making it profitable. Then it will change.

Also, we need to change how we talk to girls. We so often make appearances the focus of what we say to girls. We don’t do that with boys. I have been guilty of this many times and am trying to break this habit.

Now, when I meet kids at events, I ask each of them one simple question:  What do you make? The answers amaze me. AND, they do not follow expected gender boundaries. They are a wonderful jumble of art and engineering and everything else all tossed in together.

Every kid has something they are passionate about. Find a way to make that the first thing you discuss with them. It shows them that you care and that what they do is far more important than how they look. Ultimately, that is the best weapon to fight off all the other nonsense.

MS: What was your favorite book as a child?

AB: Go, Dog, Go! by P.D. Eastman was my favorite. I spent hour upon hour pouring over the illustration at the end and contemplating what I would do if I was invited to a big dog party like that. (We had dogs, but they never invited me to their parties.) The dogs in this book had a trampoline, a trapeze, and cake!  How could a person choose? As I got older, I loved Nancy Drew & Trixie Beldon mysteries. I even had a detective club after school with my friend. Our pledge was the Miranda Act. Clearly, I also spent too much time watching Dragnet.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

AB: My biggest heroes are my parents. They worked so hard their entire lives so that their six kids could have good educations. My success is only possible because of them. My mom gave us all an enormous love of books. I was raised in a town of 300 people and our house had more books in it than the rest of the whole town. Including the school. That made an impression.

My other heroes are my in-laws, my aunts and uncles and the people of their generation who literally saved the world in WWII. ROSIE REVERE, ENGINEER is dedicated to them. We have an unpayable debt to them for doing what was needed when it was needed the most.


Q&A with Maria Nikolajeva: Author and professor at the University of Cambridge


Hello, Maria! Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research.

I am a professor of children’s literature at the University of Cambridge. I have worked academically with children’s and young adult literature more than thirty years and published a dozen books and hundreds of articles. I do not work on any specific historical periods, nor authors, nor genres, but I am interested in “big questions”, such as what makes children’s literature distinct from other kinds of literature. So perhaps what I do can be best described as philosophy of children’s literature.

How are female protagonists represented in children’s literature today?

Contemporary children’s and young adult writers cannot but be acutely conscious of gender issues. However, these can be dealt with in various ways. Replacing a male hero with a female in a conventional masculine heroic plot is not a good strategy. In fact, such pseudo-strong heroines frequently despise their less heroic sisters, which cancels the feminist thrust of the story.  Portraying a temporarily empowered heroine who falls for an attractive male the moment she meets him isn’t particularly radical either. A writer who really wants to be subversive must find ways of providing a female protagonist with agency and visibility, without withdrawing it at the end, and it must be plausible within the framework of the fictional world, be it realistic or supernatural.

How are children affected by what they read?

There is today reliable scientific evidence that reading fiction affects our brains, enhancing our understanding of the world, society, ourselves and other people. Young readers develop their cognitive and social skills through reading, using fiction as a training field for dealing with real-life issues and relationships. Most works of fiction place their characters in situations that readers are unlikely to encounter in real life, but can experience vicariously through the characters. For female readers such proxy experience can be particularly liberating.

You’ve written about the Twilight series and how damaging it can be to young girls. Can you expand on this? What are the big problems with this series?

Twilight is about rape and sexual abuse, which we normally perceive as socially and morally unacceptable, but which is in the series presented in a seductive way. Bella is easy for young girls to identify with, because she is such a nonentity, such a “just-like-me”, and it is a pitfall, because if readers align with a character they are unable to judge her, to see how erroneously she is thinking and acting. Young readers may not be able to liberate themselves from this immersive identification; in plain words, say to themselves: “I know that Bella is an idiot, and this is exactly why I am curious to read about her, since fortunately I will never be in this situation myself, because I am smart, and if I happen to meet a vampire, I will not be tempted”.

Could you provide us with some good example of books with strong female characters?

Two great recent examples are John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Marcus Sedgwick’s She Is Not Invisible. In the first, the protagonist is a cancer victim, in the other, she is blind. Neither book is “about” cancer or disability, but both portray young girls with strong personal integrity, powerful agency and voice. They don’t fight monsters, at least not in the conventional sense – they certainly fight their inner monsters. They are not “just-like-me”, and you don’t want to be like them, but you want to know everything about them because they are awsome.

What makes a female character “strong” or “weak”?

Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is doubtless a strong herione, but she is not flawless and has much to learn. This ambivalence makes her a compelling literary character, as opposed to, for instance, Tris in Veronica Roth’s Divergent who may seem strong, but is manipulated, which a young reader can easily miss, enchanted by her superficial strength. Katniss in The Hunger Games is a strong character precisely because she has weaknesses, doubts, ethical concerns; but if the reader is only interested in action and romance, this complexity may go unnoticed. A female character who emulates masculinity is not strong. A female character who is one of a kind and disdains other women is not strong. A character who can both maintain her agency and affirm her femininity is strong.

How do you feel about the statement, “Girls will read books with female or male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

It is true and has been repeatedly confirmed in various empirical projects, although it is of course a generalisation, and there may be many concrete examples of the opposite. Cognitive psychology has shown that girls develop empathy, that is, ability to understand other people’s emotions and states of mind, on the average two years earlier than boys. Therefore a young female reader is more likely to engage with a male protagonist. Nowadays books are very clearly marketed toward a particular audience, and there is strong peer pressure, so a boy wouldn’t like to be caught reading a book with a girly cover, even if it may be of huge interest for him. (Ebooks are good because they don’t betray what you are reading). But this tendency certainly continues into adulthood: men typically don’t read books or watch movies with female protagonists, and generally men read less fiction than women. This is why women on the whole have more imagination and empathy, since reading fiction stimulates these qualities.

Who is your hero/heroine?  

Snufkin in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books.

Q&A with Lois Lowry: author of THE GIVER and NUMBER THE STARS


Melissa Seymour: Hello, Lois! Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.

Lois Lowry: I am a writer who does primarily books for young adults and middle-grade kids. It is my full-time job. I started doing this when my own children were teenagers.  Now, many years later, they are grown…and I have a 30-year-old grandson.  So I have been at this for a lot of years. My first book was published in 1977.

MS: Why is it so important for children to read? Did you read a lot as a child?

LL: Yes, I loved reading, as a child. In those days we had no TV!  Books, for me, were a primary pastime. It’s harder now for kids, with so many choices of how to amuse themselves, how to learn, how to spend time, to focus on books the way I did.  But I do think it’s important that kids read in order to develop their own imagination and creativity.

MS: You create very realistic characters… What’s your process for character development?  

LL: I don’t have any formal process. Characters appear, almost fully formed, in my imagination; and they continue to develop as I write the story.

MS: Your female protagonists are strong characters and great role models for girls. Is this intentional? Do you feel it’s important for children to have strong female role models?

LL: The fact that I am female accounts for the fact that most of my books…not all…have female protagonists. The fact that they are “strong characters” is because such it is necessary to the story always. The protagonist is the one who makes choices, who faces obstacles, who battles through to achieve a goal.  Male or female, that character has to be a strong one to engage the interest and empathy of the reader.

MS: Do you agree with the statement “Girls will read books with female and male protagonists but boys will only read books with male protagonists”?

LL: No, I don’t.  One of my books, NUMBER THE STARS, is very popular with boys, though the two main protagonists are both girls.  It may be a bit of a leap for a boy to pick up such a book…and it has a picture of a girl on the cover….but the important element for a reader of either gender is a compelling story.

MS: Was there ever a time in your writing career when you weren’t taken seriously?

LL: Probably when I was a housewife and the mother of four young children…and trying to write….very few people took my aspirations seriously. The important thing is that I did, always.

MS: How much time do you put into world building before you write a novel? How long did it take you to create your world in The Giver?

LL: Not much.  It builds as I write it…and as I go back and rewrite it.  The rewriting and revision is the important element. I discover the world as it creates itself. Then, as I begin to know it, I can go back and flesh it out.

MS: Who is your hero/heroine?

LL: Stuart Little. I love his indomitable optimism.

MS: What advice do you have for women aspiring to be authors, directors, producers or artists? 

LL: My advice would be to take oneself seriously and to focus on the craft. Not to think about achievement or success but rather the work itself, the joy one can take in it….and the joy one can give to others.