Children’s Book Industry Has Its #MeToo Moment
Posted February 15, 2018 9:28 p.m. EST
The week began with the world of children’s and young adult literature celebrating its most prestigious awards, the industry’s version of the Oscars. It ended with surprise and confusion as trade groups, literary agents and a publisher broke with several best-selling authors over allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.
The loudest boom landed Thursday afternoon when Random House said it would not publish any future books by James Dashner, the author of “The Maze Runner,” a top-selling dystopian science fiction series that was turned into a film trilogy.
Dashner has been working on his first novel directed at adults, “The Waking,” which has been acquired by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House.
The industry’s sudden reckoning with the #MeToo movement primarily involved complaints that a long list of prominent writers and editors exploited their power and position at keystone industry events to make sexual advances, particularly toward female authors hoping to further their careers.
Allegations described in an article by author Anne Ursu on Medium last week initially contained no details on the accused. But as the article drew comments and attention on social media and in trade publications, the unnamed were named.
Some of the accused included well-known writers whose books are found on recommended reading lists at schools and libraries across the country. Among them were Dashner and Jay Asher, the author of “Thirteen Reasons Why,” which was recently made into a Netflix series.
The controversy arose at an awkward moment for the industry, which had gathered Monday at the American Library Association’s midwinter meeting in Denver to announce its most coveted awards for children and young adult literature, including the John Newbery and Randolph Caldecott medals.
That afternoon, Lin Oliver, executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, announced in a statement that Asher and David Diaz, a prizewinning illustrator, had left the organization for violating its “code of conduct in regard to harassment.”
Asher released a statement through a spokeswoman, Tamara Taylor, calling the society’s description of his departure “completely false” and demanding a retraction from Oliver. Asher said he was a member in good standing but voluntarily agreed to skip the society’s conferences “in response to hurt feelings of a group of authors with whom he had consensual relationships that ended poorly.”
Asher said none of the accusations against him involved harassment. He added that the women involved were all his “peers” and that some had pursued him.
Dashner’s agent, Michael W. Bourret, parted ways with him Monday. So did Asher’s literary agency, Andrea Brown, writing on Twitter that it had “counseled Jay to take a step back from the industry” and was no longer working with him.
Then, on Thursday, Dashner posted a long statement on Twitter that said he was shocked by the allegations against him. But after a few days of intensive soul-searching and discussions about harassment in the publishing industry, he concluded that he had been part of the problem.
“I didn’t honor and fully understand boundaries and power dynamics,” he said, and offered an apology and pledged to amend his behavior.
Soon after, Random House parted ways with him.
Diaz left the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators despite having completed a training course about sexual harassment and a yearlong probation after a woman complained to the society that he had made her feel uncomfortable.
Diaz said the training had taught him that what he had considered innocent flirtation was perceived much differently.
“Don’t call anyone ‘honey,’ don’t touch anyone, don’t engage in any kind of flirtatious manner,” he said in an interview. “And after training I understood my only purpose is to talk about books and the craft of making books.”
Then, after the #MeToo movement caught fire, writer Ishta Mercurio-Wentworth told Oliver of an incident that occurred six years earlier, when Diaz had touched her hair, said, “You’re kinky, aren’t you,” and then walked away. Diaz then sent her an apology.
“I do think his response was the appropriate response, and I appreciated that,” Mercurio-Wentworth said, citing “his honesty and humility.”
Nonetheless, Diaz said he had felt pressured to resign from the board of the books society.
Some of the complaints made public dealt with what women called “creepy” comments, remarks about their bodies and persistent sexual advances in a work setting or at work-related events. Martha Brockenbrough, an author, said such behavior made it more difficult for women to succeed.
“Think about all of the books that haven’t been created by the women who have been driven away, or silenced, or just reduced in spirit,” she said. “It takes a lot of courage, focus and discipline to write a book, so when you’re feeling uncomfortable, it’s harder to create.”
The books society released a statement Wednesday, saying it “regrets that any of our members has experienced harassment or intimidation during any of our events or programs” and announcing updates to its anti-harassment policy. Its amended version spells out a code of conduct and reporting mechanisms.
Garren Hochstetler, the director of Valley Public Library in Valley, Nebraska, said he planned to buy more books from the authors speaking out about sexual misconduct, starting with an order next week.
“It’s nothing big, but we’re just trying to do a little something where we can,” he said.
Women dominate the publishing industry. But its roughly 80 percent female workforce has not protected members — or those who aspire to join their ranks — from lewd comments, unwanted and aggressive sexual advances, and groping.
The flood of allegations was “an eye opener, especially for men in the community who were not aware this was happening,” said Gwenda Bond, a writer.
For a grass-roots effort, Bond urged colleagues to sign on to an anti-harassment code of conduct and garnered more than 1,000 signatures.
“Stories are our business, and stories are really important,” she said. “And this is the moment in the story where the bad guys go down.”
Industry heavyweights offered support to victims. Rick Riordan, whose “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series was adapted to film, wrote in a “soul-searching” blog post Sunday that, while he was “not surprised these things happen in the children’s publishing industry,” the allegations left him feeling “angry and disgusted.”
Other writers and editors, though, cautioned against lumping in violence, rape and abuse with inappropriate comments and come-ons.
“There needs to be a level of degree and distinction,” Diaz said, adding that he has been scrupulous about his behavior since the training. Myke Cole, a science fiction and fantasy author, wrote an apologetic blog post after seeing his name mentioned online this week as someone who had behaved inappropriately with women.
“I was stunned, and thought that of course this can’t be me, it’s someone who’s messing with me,” he said.
But then a longtime female friend contacted Cole and reminded him of when he made repeated, aggressive advances until she demanded he stop.
“And then of course my stomach went into knots, thinking about who else felt this way, and that I had clearly been doing this all this time thinking it was OK,” he said.
In his blog post, he pledged to donate $500 to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides support for victims of sexual harassment, assault or abuse. He said he hoped his posting would convey to victims that “although they feel like they’re crazy, that they’re overreacting, they’re not.”