February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ishta Mercurio Goes Public as David Díaz Accuser

UPDATED February 14, 2018Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators executive director Lin Oliver, who  declined to comment for SLJ’s original story on sexual harassment in children’s publishing, has subsequently contacted the reporter to provide new details and a timeline concerning David Díaz and SCBWI’s actions in response to allegations of sexual harassment against him.

According to Oliver: In 2012, SCBWI received an anonymous complaint against Díaz. The complaint corresponded with what the organization’s leadership had observed of Díaz’s behavior at conferences, which they considered unprofessional. At that point, they removed him from the board for a year and he attended sexual harassment training. SCBWI then readmitted him to the board on a probationary basis for one year, during which no further incidents were observed or reported.

Díaz was allowed to return to the board in a permanent capacity in 2015. When Ishta Mercurio came forward in the fall of 2017 to report a 2012 incident, Oliver discussed it with Díaz and he apologized to Mercurio.  At that time, Oliver and Díaz mutually decided he should resign from the board.

This story is a follow-up to “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks,” published online January 3. 

Ishta Mercurio 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 Mercurio (who requested that she not to be identified in this story published online January 3 and has subsequently asked to be named).

The exchange, which happened in 2012 at SCBWI’s winter conference in New York and was witnessed by a friend of Mercurio, left her feeling “horrified” and “disgusted.” The illustrator, David Díaz, was a member of SCBWI’s board and a faculty member at the conference.

Still, Mercurio, who at that point in her career was an unpublished aspiring children’s book author, did not complain about the incident at the time.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.

Díaz has illustrated numerous books for children, including Newbery Honor winner The Wanderer, by Sharon Creech. He won the 1995 Caldecott Medal for his illustration of the picture book Smoky Night (Harcourt, 1994) by Eve Bunting.

The 2012 event wasn’t the first time Mercurio had met him—a mutual acquaintance introduced them at the 2011 conference, and Díaz had made a milder but still suggestive comment to her then. After their 2012 interaction, Mercurio 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 Mercurio, who 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. Mercurio reported her experiences to the executive director of SCBWI, Lin Oliver, who told her that Díaz had been warned in the past about such behavior, though after Mercurio’s interactions with him.

Díaz apologized to Mercurio via email, and she accepted his apology. Satisfied with that outcome, Mercurio believed the matter had been laid to rest, and she doesn’t know whether there were any further allegations that prompted Díaz’s resignation in December.

Oliver declined to comment about Díaz’s resignation.

Mercurio 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.

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Comments

  1. Ishta, I admire and appreciate the courage it must have taken to come forward with this. And I’m truly sorry you went through that experience.

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      Thank you, Sam. I think it’s important to say that horrified as I was, his behavior toward me — while absolutely inappropriate — was at the milder end of the harassment spectrum, and because of that, it is easier for me to speak about it than it is for women who have experienced more aggressive harassment. And this is part of the reason why I chose to speak up. I hope that one day, every woman who has experienced harassment will feel safe coming foward, and I hope my lodging a formal complaint will help other people who have suffered harassment to find the courage to come forward and share those experiences with the appropriate people.

  2. Thank you for your courage in speaking publicly about this, Ishta. Sending all of my support to you, and anyone who has faced harassment in the industry.

  3. Mike Jung says:

    Ishta, I’ve already told you this, but you have all my respect and all my support for coming forward. It’s damnably unfair that it has to work this way, so you shouldn’t have to, but thank you for doing so.

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      Thank you, Mike. I honestly wish that every person who has been harassed felt safe coming forward. If being the first person to do so openly makes it easier for others, then I have to do it. Someone has to pave the way; if not me, then who? And as I said above: my experience was not the worst. That makes it easier to talk about. This is still difficult, but it is immeasurably less difficult for me than for some others, and that means that this is my duty.

      • “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.”

        I rarely comment in general, but your decision to come forward is very courageous, Ishta, and I had to tell you. Thank you.
        Like you, I wish every person who has been harassed, sexually abused, and raped whether in the workplace or elsewhere would do the same. I felt very encouraged when the #Metoo movement started. Then, when people came forward decades after the facts, I felt upset, to be frank. Mostly, because most were famous women who had the privilege to speak up. They had so little to lose.
        I was twenty one when I was raped at knifepoint and as much as I wanted to hide and worse, I went to the police. The experience there was another trauma. But I did it because I was even more scared to become someone else if I didn’t file a proper complain.
        No change was ever made smoothly, and I’d rather take the chance to miss a job opportunity than staying silent.
        We need more women and men (it is even harder for men to come forward when they’ve been harassed or worse) to speak up.
        We do it first for us, to remain alive and proud of who we are.
        We do it then for everyone else.
        So it stops.
        Obviously, I’m not naive enough to believe that it will happen overnight, but look, Ishta, the SCBWI has posted their new policy regarding harassment.
        Sometimes it takes only one person.

  4. Ishta,

    Thank you for coming forward. It takes a lot of courage to do that. While I’m not in the kid lit industry per se, I work in a library and I’ve been harassed multiple times. Every person that comes forward makes me feel less alone. Thank you and I hope you find healing.

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      Thank you, Megan. I’m sorry that you experienced this. You are not alone, and I hope that this helps you move forward. All my best to you.

  5. Martha Brockenbrough says:

    Ishta, I respect and support you and am saying this here so it’s on the record.

  6. Susan Rankin-Pollard says:

    I am an illustrator coordinator and choose to publicly applaud your bravery in coming forward. I will be expecting nothing less of the SCBWI than showing full transparency regarding this and other matters of its kind. We need a strong policy and for training of our regional team volunteers to properly and uniformly take care of any such situations as they arise, as well as the means to properly educate membership in the hopes of preventing such misbehavior in the future.

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      Thank you, Susan. I, too, hope that this leads to transparency and a stronger policy, and that all regional leaders are looped in. The SCBWI Board of Advisors has announced that they are reviewing their sexual harassment policies and procedures, and I hope that the result mirrors what you have described here.

  7. Ishta, I believe you and I respect you for coming forward. When all this came out, girlfriends reminded me I warned them about him in the past because I’ve experienced similar behavior from him.

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      I’m sorry you experienced that, Katie. Thank you for speaking your truth here, and thank you for your supportive words.

  8. Since the other post got closed for comments: https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2018/02/12/arts/ap-us-books-childrens-literature-harassment.html

    Nothing we don’t already know but it’s getting out there now.

  9. Ishta Mercurio says:

    A representative from the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) stated on facebook that sexual harassment is against their code of conduct, and that anyone who has been harassed by a literary agent who is a member of the AAR and wishes to report it can do so by contacting them. Their website is here: http://aaronline.org/

    Stay strong, my friends.

  10. Shame on SLJ for closing the comments on their other article. So Jay Asher and David Diaz have been booted, but what about the other alleged abusers (Mo Willems, Drew Daywalt, Matt de la Pena, James Dasher)?

    • Worried Writer says:

      LameGame — some of the above’s accusers have recanted. Apologized for getting carried away in the feeding frenzy. SLJ was wise to pour some water on the torches.

  11. Rosemarie OConnor says:

    Ishta, You are stunningly brave. A hero! Thanks for caring for me, my daughter and grand daughters,

  12. LameGame, if the others harassed people at SCBWI events, I hope women will report it and get them booted, too. If it was in other venues, I hope there are procedures for reporting it and a zero tolerance policy. As for SLJ closing the other article, people could pick up here where they left off there. Eventually these comments would close too but many would get a chance to say what they want before that happens.

  13. Susan Adrian says:

    Thank you for coming forward, Ishta. It’s an important part of this whole process. I’m sorry for your experience, and any trauma this has caused you.

  14. Worried Writer says:

    Hmmm. As a fellow writer, I feel I must question the word choices in both this article and your accounting. You admit the the offence of a one-liner remark and a touch of the hair is on mild end of harassment. But yet you say you were “horrified” vs. embarrassed or annoyed or pissed off. You describe someone touching your hair as “fondling it”, which, I’m sorry, undercuts anyone’s experience who has actually been sexually fondled.

    You reported this to SCBWI. Received an apology which you accepted. The man resigned. And yet… whether intentionally or not, you fire up the mob, lead it onwards. What’s happening is troubling to me.

    Entering the dialogue about how things need to be recognized, codes of conduct made clear, etc. is a very, very good thing. Needed now. Unveiling your identity is brave. But something about the vengeful, over-the-top piling on is just not feeling like a good thing. Ruinous. Dangerous. And potentially, unfairly so.

    • Embarrassed?!!?! I don’t understand your word choice here. Why do you assume she would feel embarrassed because someone else harassed her??
      I assume she described the touching of her hair as fondling because it was done in a very sexual manner, which you and I can both easily picture. And I am someone who was sexually fondled by an adult relative when I was just a kid. Her story does not undercut my experience whatsoever.

      • Worried Writer says:

        Horrified?!?! Everyone understands what’s at stake here. And it’s a mistake to go from silence to shrieking with no stops inbetween. There is rape and child molestation, there is long-term job pressure/hindrance by a person in power, there is a physical assault such as “grabbing one’s pussy”. Horrified! Sure. I’d be too. Then there are awkward advances, a tasteless joke, a wandering hand during a photo shoot. Insulted. Undermined. Pissed off. Yes, I get that. But horrified? Really? No. Blanket high-pitched outrage for every level of indiscretion or demands for huge consequences, vengeful, career-ending penalties for each and every offense? If we go there, we invite mob Witch Hunt accusations, that are best avoided if true progress is going to be embraced. By men. We NEED men in power on our side. To be convinced and converted. And most are willing. But won’t be if the movement turns into an anonymous accusation/rumor-fueled free for all, by social-media guillotine. That’s a real large-picture worry worth considering. That is the point I’m making.

  15. I think all women have a right to speak out when men demean them. But I don’t think a single instance equals harassment,which is usually defined as ongoing behavior.
    This sounds like flirting. Yes, probably inappropriate flirting. What makes it more important though is that he shouldn’t have saying inappropriate things to authors as a member of the board.
    Also, it sounds like there were other accusers or witnessed interactions deemed inappropriate.
    At last men may be getting the message that not everyone finds them desirable or welcomes coarse advances.

  16. I´m horrified at the use of the word horrified.

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