During Teen Read Week, back in October, we had a display of our teen customers’ favorite books. One of our high school-aged staff members recommended Kody Keplinger’s The D.U.F.F. (Poppy Books, $8.99). Around the same time, independent booksellers started carrying Kobo e-readers in store and I downloaded The D.U.F.F. as my test book. Since I have a stack of books and ARCs sitting on my desk waiting to be read, I kind of forgot about that ebook, until last night. Bianca is the ‘Duff’: the Designated Ugly Fat Friend to her two gorgeous best friends. I haven’t been a teenager in a long time, but wow, I could relate. My two best friends were (are) beautiful and that’s one of the many things that this book really gets right — the recognition that we all kind of feel like the Duff.
I’m going to admit right now that this book made me feel kind of old. There is a shocking amount of sex. And the fact that I was shocked is what made me feel old. At the risk of dating myself, a contraband copy of Judy Blume’s Forever was passed covertly around (the girls) in my 6th grade classroom. I certainly read books containing sex when I was in high school, but they were adult novels, not YA books. When reading The D.U.F.F, I almost felt a bit uncomfortable. Bianca doesn’t just have sex, she uses sex . . . as a way to punish herself . . . as a weapon . . . as an escape. Her immaturity and inability to maintain a healthy relationship, not to mention her own self-loathing, was discomforting and seemed to embody all of the reasons adults typically use to discourage teens from engaging in sexual activity. What impressed me with the book, however, is that Keplinger didn’t just dismiss teen sex as an ‘everyone is doing it, it’s not a big deal’ thing. Bianca matures, slowly but drastically, during the narrative. She steps outside of herself and starts to see the insecurities of the people around her. Her two best friends love her fiercely. They don’t think of her as the duff; they value her, see her beauty, and consider themselves the duff in comparison. Bianca starts to understand that duff isn’t actually a ‘designation’ it is a state of mind. In a rather poignant moment, she is in the girls’ bathroom with the school ‘whore’ who has just had a pregnancy scare. She realizes:
I didn’t know Vikki that well. I didn’t know what her home life was like or anything that personal aside from her boy issues. And standing there in the bathroom, listening as she told me her story, I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d been running away from something, too. If I’d been judging her, thinking of her as a slut all this time, when, in reality, we were living scarily similar lives.
Calling Vikki a slut or a whore was just like calling someone the Duff. It was insulting and hurtful, and it was one of those titles that just fed off an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.
It’s Bianca’s gradual self-awareness that made this book so powerful. Even more impressive is that Keplinger was seventeen when she wrote it. It turns out I was wrong. This isn’t a book about teen sexuality; it’s a book about growing up female and discovering your own value in a world that is trying to keep you down, telling you you’re a whore, a bitch, or even a duff. Maybe YA novels haven’t changed that much.