A reckoning is coming to children’s publishing surrounding the issue of sexual abuse and harassment in that segment of the industry.
Following the publication of an article, “Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry,” posted to the Medium publishing platform last week by children’s author Anne Ursu, which reported on a survey on the matter she opened last December, a number of people have taken harassment claims against a number of bestselling and award-winning authors to the Internet. These accusations were made both in the comments section of a January article in School Library Journal, “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks,” which saw a huge surge of comments claiming instances of harassment following the publication of Ursu’s essay, as well as on Twitter.
Among those accused by multiple parties are Thirteen Reasons Why author Jay Asher and Caldecott Medal–winning illustrator and longtime Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board member David Díaz. (Asher was also involved with the SCBWI.) PW has reached out to a number of the publishers of authors named in the SLJ article comment section; so far, only Asher’s publisher has responded.
“We are unable to comment on Jay Asher’s relationship with SCBWI because we have had no involvement with or knowledge of our author’s history with this organization,” a representative from Penguin Young Readers said in a statement to PW. “Penguin Young Readers does not currently have any new books scheduled for publication with Jay Asher.”
News about Asher broke on Monday afternoon, when the Associated Press published a story reporting his expulsion from the society. (Asher has since responded in BuzzFeed, claiming that he left the organization on his own volition and that he was the one who had been harassed.) Díaz resigned from his position on the SCBWI board in December following the breaking of news surrounding harassment complaints lodged against him.
“Both Jay Asher and David Díaz were found to have violated the SCBWI code of conduct in regard to harassment,” SCBWI executive director Lin Oliver wrote in an email to the AP. “Claims against them were investigated and, as a result, they are no longer members and neither will be appearing at any SCBWI events in the future.”
Several sources—some of whom spoke to PW on condition of anonymity—said that Asher’s reputation was well known, even by his publisher, but tolerated; the Penguin Young Readers spokesperson, however, vigorously denied that they had any knowledge of misconduct by Asher. Author Martha Brockenbrough, who said she is a longtime SCBWI member, said many of the women she knows who have “had relationships” with Asher felt “victimized in many ways” and that “the power balance was not equal. Nor was his behavior afterward remotely acceptable.” (Asher has been married since 2002.)
“Many of us knew Jay,” Brockenbrough added. “He’s been to my house and was very kind to my niece. But he behaved terribly here and worse, made a habit of it. This is where we all have to think about the bigger picture, and realize that someone we know as a friendly professional is also capable of harming others. And we have to protect and support those who have been harmed first, last, and always.”
One Díaz accuser, initially anonymous, whose October accusation provided the springboard for Díaz’s removal from SCBWI’s board last December, came out to SLJ in February in a follow-up article, “Ishta Mercurio Goes Public as David Díaz Accuser.” (Brockenbrough has confirmed that, prior to his permanent banning in December, Díaz had been “temporarily banned and went to some sort of training” following a different incident. He was later reinstated.) Speaking with PW about the situation surrounding Ursu’s article, Mercurio said it was “hard to know how the new accusations are being handled, if at all.”
She continued: “I’d like to see the industry as a whole taking more responsibility for enabling people like him. At conference after conference, agents and editors stress that they google querying writers and illustrators before they offer a contract…. So if that’s truly the case, then I would hope that an agent would break their ties with people who do not meet that expectation of professional behavior, and that includes people who commit sexual harassment. It disappoints me that this does not appear to be the reality, because it is such a low bar to expect decent behavior from people who create books for children.”
Ursu’s article, in addition to prompting an outpouring of allegations, has also prompted a wider conversation on the issue of sexual harassment in the children’s sector of publishing and literature in particular. Percy Jackson and the Olympians author Rick Riordan addressed sexual harrassment issue on his blog, while Oliver posted a comment to the SLJ piece in which she claimed to be “listening and learning and open to your comments, and especially to the stories of victims,” and pledged to open a new email account, email@example.com,” to which “anyone who has been victimized can report the offense. A committee of our Board will review and respond.”
While an official statement from the SCBWI is forthcoming, Oliver, in an email to PW, said the society will issue “a more detailed sexual harassment policy” in the coming days, which will comprise: “a statement of zero tolerance”; “a better-defined description of what constitutes harassment”; “a code of conduct for SCBWI events”; “a better reporting system, either anonymous or named, with a panel of three to review and investigate claims”; and “a statement of consequences for violation of our code of conduct.”
She added: “While we have never tolerated sexual harassment, or in fact, harassment or discrimination of any kind, we are aware that these times call for more complete and robust guidelines and consequences. We commend the courage of those who have spoken out, and we are proud to be part of the changes that are taking place.”
In spite of these changes coming to the SCBWI, Mercurio remains concerned that little will change. “I would love for us to be able to reach a place of full transparency: where people who harass others can publicly admit to their behavior, publicly seek treatment or rehabilitation, and then—maybe—publicly be welcomed back into the industry,” she said. “But it takes a very big, very humble person to be able to do that, and I’m afraid that because of ‘rockstar’ culture (and egos), driven both by society at large and by the economics of publishing (in which one blockbuster book often pays the bills for the entire slate of books being published in a given year), that is unlikely to ever happen.”
Changes Mercurio could see happening start with “stronger policies on sexual harassment from conference organizers, publishers, and literary agencies,” a “deeper level of transparency when it comes to the handling of harassment complaints,” a system where “publishers and agents include codes of conduct that specifically address sexual harassment in their contracts,” and “specific consequences and procedures laid out clearly on organization websites and in printed conference materials” in case of an ethical violation.
Ursu, for her part, was “pleasantly surprised” by the “lack of blowback” surrounding her piece and the accusations that were levied as a result. “It’s easier to focus on the problem when people aren’t focusing on the names of writers they like,” she said. “That creates a lot of defensiveness. And as names are outed, I hope we can still focus on the systemic issues, but I’m grateful that people are taking this very seriously.”
Ursu added: “The thing that surprised me most was the stories of male bestsellers acting badly and, whether that is at conferences or at book festivals or on tour, making unwanted advances and groping booksellers and librarians and conference attendees and women they were on panels with. I was dismayed to read a couple of accounts that publishers had been complained to about these authors and that they were still being sent out on tour. I think that’s a real conversation that publishers need to have with themselves: What is their responsibility when their authors are out harassing booksellers and librarians? I’m also wondering if the American Library Association or American Booksellers Association wants to talk about how they can protect these people.”
This article has been updated with further information.