Those of us who write books for children and young adults understand that the “kidlit” industry has a special obligation to address challenges in ways that serve as positive examples for our readers. Some of our challenges include issues of gender and racial disparity and representation, leading to hard but productive conversations about how we interact with one another on social media and how we engage in critiques of each other’s work.
More recently, though, the #MeToo movement has emerged in kidlit. Conversations have been brewing for some time, through quiet discussions in online fora interspersed with the occasional cryptic comment on Twitter, such as writer Maureen Johnson’s tweet addressed to a “well-known sexual predator in YA…everyone knows who you are. Tick tock. Tick tock.
I hope you are sweating bullets. I want to hear them hit the ground.”
But it took some initiative to bring the brew to a full boil. That initiative came from Anne Ursu, the author of multiple award-winning novels for middle-grade readers, who put together an anonymous survey of inappropriate behavior in the kidlit community, based on Kelly Jensen’s prior survey of sexual harassment in libraries.
Ursu crafted the responses she received into a thoughtful, lengthy article that confirmed many suspicions about how extensive these issues are and that contained suggestions for how to make the community safer. She wrote about starting with stronger human resources and conference policies, and then reconsidering how we as individuals view sexual harassment. She pointed out the many ways we prioritize the voices of harassers over those of victims, leading to ineffective private reprimands that have no lasting effect.
Most important, she asked two key questions: “What would it look like if we, in children’s publishing, decided we had zero tolerance for sexual harassment? What would it look like if we looked at all our institutions and spheres and made combating sexual harassment a priority in all of them?”
YA author Gwenda Bond responded quickly, drafting policies for kidlit conference organizers to address harassment at conferences, including a letter for authors to sign that now has over 1400 signatories. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators quickly revised its anti-harassment policy as well, and author Alexandra Duncan started a list of anti-harassment resources for writers.
In addition, Shannon Hale, the author of numerous books for children, middle-grade readers, and adults, called on the men in kidlit to think about the ways they are responsible for making the community safer, and authors like Adam Gidwitz responded by reaching out to other men to start the conversation.
Quickly the conversation moved to what “zero tolerance” might look like.
An article on the School Library Journal website last month revealed the name of a serial harasser, and the comments section turned into the locus of debate over what the community should be doing about these issues, culminating in the identification of other alleged harassers.
Among those alleged harassers were some of the biggest names in children’s literature, and zero tolerance turned out to include immediate and serious consequences. James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series, lost his agency representation and then his publisher. Jay Asher, author of the novel Thirteen Reasons Why, denied the allegations, admitting only to a series of extramarital affairs, but his agent opted to part ways with him anyway, and he also lost his spot as a conference speaker, though he insists he is still a member of SCBWI.
More recently, writer Daniel Handler (better known to many as Lemony Snicket) signed on to Gwenda Bond’s letter only to face accusations of inappropriate conduct from a number of women. This has started new conversations about how to handle behavior that sexualizes the amorphous workplace environment of writers while only sometimes rising to the level of actual harassment.
In many ways, the timeline and trajectory of kidlit’s #MeToo track the beginning of the movement in film. First there were the whisper networks of (mostly) women helping each other avoid predators. Then came stories about the big names, like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and James Dashner and Jay Asher. Next came the more nuanced cases, like Aziz Ansari and Daniel Handler, where someone’s public persona as a feminist advocate came into conflict with their more private behavior.
The film industry has always had an imbalance of power, which makes the abuse of that power relatively unsurprising.
That’s not the case in publishing, or at least it shouldn’t be—if women make up the majority of employees in publishing, then it’s worth talking about why the industry is still having so many issues with men’s inappropriate exercise of power.
The conversation is critical because ultimately, those of us in the kidlit community are writing for children, and we need to show them the best of what is possible.
The #MeToo movement presents a unique opportunity to handle these issues at least as well as any other industry, if not better, and to serve as a role model for others. We need to continue having these difficult conversations, and as many of them in public as we can handle, so we can find the best ways to foster change.
Michelle Falkoff is the Director of Communication and Legal Reasoning at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, where she is a Public Voices Fellow through the Op-Ed Project. She is the author of the young adult novels Playlist for the Dead, Pushing Perfect, and Questions I Want to Ask You (forthcoming).