January 15, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks

 

A writer was making small talk during the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) annual conference when she says the man she was chatting with, a successful children’s book illustrator, reached over and touched her hair.

“He fondled a lock of my hair and leaned in to my ear and said, ‘You’re kinky, aren’t you?’” says the writer, who asked not to be identified.

The exchange, which happened in 2012 at SCBWI’s winter conference in New York and was witnessed by one of the writer’s friends, left the woman feeling “horrified” and “disgusted.” The illustrator, David Díaz, was a member of SCBWI’s board and a faculty member at the conference. Still, the writer, who at that point in her career was an unpublished aspiring children’s book author, did not complain about the incident at the time. However, in December 2017,  Díaz resigned from his position on the SCBWI’s board, after sexual harassment complaints emerged about his past.

The author of numerous books for children,  Díaz was honored with the 1995 Caldecott Medal for his illustration of the picture book Smoky Night (Harcourt, 1994) by Eve Bunting.

Ever since October, when the New York Times published a damning expose of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long track record of sexual harassment and predation, the United States has been engaged in a difficult and far-reaching dialogue about sexual harassment. The problem touches all industries, from blue collar to white collar, and as women have felt emboldened to come forward to report abuse, men who held leading positions in media, government, the arts, and entertainment have been fired or forced to resign.

The situation is no different in publishing, where journalist Mark Halperin was dropped by Penguin Press due to reports of sexual harassment. In an investigation by Publisher’s Weekly (PW) this fall, numerous women reported troubling incidents of sexual harassment over the course of their publishing careers, ranging from degrading remarks to groping and physical attacks. Two recent resignations this winter have shined a light on the problem within the more close-knit world of children’s publishing.

Castellano departs Penguin

At the beginning of December, Giuseppe Castellano, executive art director of Penguin Workshop, Penguin Random House’s imprint for children’s books, resigned due to allegations made against him by actress Charlyne Yi. In a series of messages posted on Twitter on Nov. 14, Yi claims that after a work meeting at a bar earlier that month to discuss a potential book project, Castellano walked Yi back to her hotel and repeatedly pushed Yi to invite him to her room as she repeatedly refused. Yi says the interaction was unnerving because Castellano had gone on at length during their meeting about the many “creeps” in children’s publishing who abuse their power to sexually harass and assault women. He also, according to Yi, told her his wife would be OK with him having an affair.

Castellano denied Yi’s claims outright, calling her story “fabricated” in a statement published on his blog shortly after his resignation. His meeting with Yi was social, not professional, he claimed, and he never pressured Yi to allow him up to her room. He resigned, Castellano says, because Yi’s public claim against him made it untenable for him to continue in his job. In response to his statement, Yi released copies of emails exchanged between them in which Castellano suggested they meet for drinks to discuss her book ideas and later apologized, saying he was “sick” about how he acted during the meeting. Penguin Random House had also previously disclosed that the company was investigating the matter.

The details of Yi’s and Castellano’s interaction—outside of the office, at a bar, while the actress was traveling and staying at a hotel—highlight aspects and dynamics of the way informal socializing is embedded into the publishing world, sometimes creating scenarios that leave people vulnerable to sexual harassment. Networking is considered a crucial part of making it as an author or illustrator or rising in a publishing house, and many women told PW that they had experienced sexual harassment during off-site social situations, such as book parties, readings, and conferences. The casual nature of these gatherings lead some to test limits and engage in sexually aggressive behavior that they might not attempt in an office setting (though sexual harassment routinely occurs in offices as well). And there’s no human resources department readily available to report abusive behavior that occurs at a conference, for instance.

Complaints about Díaz

That’s the situation that the writer whom Díaz reportedly called “kinky” found herself in at the SCBWI conference in 2012. It wasn’t the first time she had met him—a mutual acquaintance introduced them at the conference the year before, and he had made a more mild but still suggestive comment to her then. After their 2012 interaction, the writer knew she wanted to avoid Díaz, but she wasn’t about to make public accusations against someone who was a conference faculty member.

“Editors want to work with people they can work with. No one wants to be that nightmare author,” says the writer, who co-authored a children’s book in 2015 and has a picture book coming out in 2019. “I didn’t want [a sexual harassment claim] to stop me from becoming the writer I wanted to become in order to thrive in this industry and in order to succeed in this industry.”

She summoned the confidence to come forward this October, encouraged by online conversations about sexual harassment and children’s publishing. The writer reported her experiences to the executive director of SCBWI, Lin Oliver, who told her that Díaz had previously been warned about such behavior. Díaz apologized to the writer via email, and she accepted his apology. Satisfied with that outcome, the writer believed the matter had been laid to rest, and she doesn’t know whether there were any further allegations which prompted Díaz’s resignation in December. Oliver declined to comment about Díaz’s resignation.

The writer is left feeling exposed and with lingering questions about how the matter was handled.

“If I’m the only one choosing to have a voice in this conversation, how is the public going to perceive this?” she says. “Keeping it behind closed doors just doesn’t help anyone.”


Drew Himmelstein is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn who writes frequently about education.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous Former SCBWI Member says:

    This is not the only occurrence or offender within SCBWI.

  2. Mike Jung says:

    I won’t say it’s good that the news about David Diaz and Guiseppe Castellano is out, because there’s nothing good about either of those situations, but it would be worse to keep the news under wraps, because the knowledge that our industry is not exempt from the destructive effects of sexual harassment is vitally important to internalize, and there’s little reason to doubt that the preceding comment is accurate.

  3. Current SCBWI Member says:

    I have worked with Mr. Diaz through SCBWI. He has a proven legacy found in the SCBWI mentoring program and has single handedly assisted many illustrators produce their best work under his guidence without strings or compensation. I hope this article doesn’t deprive our industry of this generous mentor.

  4. SCBWI Member says:

    As a ten year member of SCBWI, I accidentally met David Diaz during the 2010 Los Angeles SCBWI conference. His professionalism, as well as his dedication to furthering the careers of beginning artists, struck me as genuine from the start. Every conference after that, whenever I was fortunate to meet with David Diaz, he showed me and my group of friends, only respect and encouragement. For a newbie talent, one with no agent, publishing contract or prospects, his kind words to carry on helped me to preserver. A true gem, David’s sincerity, his overall willingness to help those of us striving to have our work recognized, should be praised. Very few extremely talented & recognized artists such as David Diaz have sought to play it forward. I am eternally grateful he has taken the time and energy to be such an important part of SCBWI and invest in so many people’s careers.

  5. current member SCBWI says:

    I have known David Diaz for ten years. We met at a SCBWI conference. During those years I saw and spoke with him at several more. Mr. Diaz always made me feel welcome, when I knew very few of the attendees. Besides being an accomplished award wining artist, he never portrayed any arrogance, and I always found him to be charming. Mr. Diaz always showed interest in my career and what direction it was taking. We discussed at length the children’s publishing world. He was honest and very helpful to someone, like me, that was considered a newbie. I consider him a friend and a mentor.

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