March 17, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Unpacking Anne Ursu’s Survey and the Fallout, with Changes Coming to Events | Sexual Harassment in Children’s Publishing

In an industry built on storytelling, children’s author Anne Ursu sought to start a dialogue and spark change through sharing personal stories. She has done just that.

Since Ursu published the results of her anonymous survey on sexual harassment in the children’s publishing industry on February 7, the conversation about bias and harassment in the kid lit industry has escalated to a fever pitch, with a cascade of further revelations and stories resulting in apologies from and consequences for some of those accused of harassment.

Anne Ursu

“I thought if I could focus on just telling stories, that would prompt some conversations that would prompt some changes,” says Ursu, who received nearly 90 responses to her anonymous online survey. The results, published in a Medium article called “Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry,” omit any identifying references to alleged perpetrators.

Ursu’s story weaved a narrative that emphasized the patterns and power dynamics that enable sexual harassment at publishing houses, literary conferences and other children’s publishing settings. The piece painted a vivid picture of sexual harassment suffered by authors, illustrators, editors and others that is prevalent even in a female-dominated industry and feeds off of the power discrepancies endemic to the publishing world.

“I wanted to be able to show that we do have problems, and I wanted to be able to show it in a way that would get people to be willing to look at those problems and look at the systems that needed fixing or need addressing,” Ursu says.


As a result of allegations made in the wake of Ursu’s piece, prominent authors have faced serious consequences.

James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner books, which were adapted into a film series, was dropped by his literary agent and publisher. Dashner apologized for his behavior on Twitter and wrote that he would seek “counseling and guidance.”

“We’re at a time of reckoning and we’re at a time of change, because our country is at a time of change,” says Dhonielle Clayton, author of bestseller The Belles. “There are men who have had powerful positions in the kid lit community for a long time, and now we’re questioning, ‘How did you get there?’”

Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why, which was adapted for Netflix last year, was dropped by his literary agent. He denies the accusations made against him as the ramifications continue. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) told the Associated Press that Asher would no longer be admitted to its events as a result of the organization’s investigation into sexual harassment claims. He was also dropped as a keynote speaker for the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation conference in May, according to AP.

Fantasy writer Myke Cole apologized on his blog for making “unwelcome advances in professional settings” and promised to donate $500 to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is administered by the National Women’s Law Center and set up to subsidize legal costs for people who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

After the publication of Ursu’s study, public sexual harassment allegations against Dashner, Cole and Asher were first made in the comments section of a month-old School Library Journal article, “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks.” Visitors to the site left hundreds of comments on the story within just a few days, in part because the Medium platform on which Ursu published doesn’t allow readers to post public comments.

“That to me is a really interesting moment,” says author Laurel Snyder, who has been active in the Twitter dialogue about sexual harassment and discrimination in children’s publishing. “There’s literally a physical group of people who are sitting on their computers desperately wishing they could leave a comment there, and as a community they ran over and found a space to use on the internet.”

Ursu says she was surprised by how many people who responded to her story and said they reported harassing behavior at literary conferences to no effect, as well as how many booksellers, librarians and authors said they had been harassed by prominent male authors and had no recourse.

“I think the way that this industry elevates men is quite relevant,” Ursu says. “It discourages reporting when it seems like the person you want to report to just thinks that guy is amazing. But I also think some of that might be feeding into why these authors are behaving really badly. People need to know they can trust these festivals and trust the organizations, and in some cases that trust has been lost.”


Publishing and literary organizations are now trying to regain that trust. SCBWI has developed a detailed code of conduct that its conference faculty and attendees must agree to, established multiple avenues for reporting harassment, developed protocols for investigating harassment claims and defined sanctions for those found to be at fault. Furthermore, the organization will publicly sanction any violators, adding transparency to the process.

“We have appreciated all the input from the children’s publishing community,” says Lin Oliver, SCBWI’s executive director. “Although this has been a painful period for SCBWI, we want to be at the forefront of putting these changes into effect for our industry.”

Other literary organizations are taking steps to improve their sexual harassment policies. Snyder,  who sits on a committee of the Decatur Book Festival in Georgia, says she was notified that the festival is reviewing its policies. The Plum Creek Children’s Literary Festival in Seward, NE, will now have authors and illustrators sign a document agreeing to abide by the sexual harassment policy of Concordia University, which sponsors the festival.

“It could be that we’ve taken it for granted that participants understood expectations for particular behavior, but given the recent disclosures and information about members of the community, we want to make it clear we have a zero-tolerance stance on the subject,” says Dylan Teut, the executive director of the Plum Creek festival.

And above and beyond these measurable steps, authors, editors and others in the publishing world say they are trying to change the culture of the industry from top to bottom.

“I really think that as people who write, and especially as people who write for children, we should know how much words matter,” says author Kate Messner, who described her experience of sexual harassment on author Gwenda Bond’s blog. “We’re authors and bookseller and librarians who are trying to do our jobs. We should all be able to do that without being subjected to these kinds of crass sexual comments or jokes.”


Clayton, COO of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books, has plenty of experience being on the receiving end of demeaning remarks. Once, when she was one of the few black women at an SCBWI conference, someone asked her if she was there to check coats. She’s impatient with the current dialogue. Some of the women she sees speaking out strongly now about harassment are ones who she believes have been racist in the past.

“I’m just frustrated that sexual harassment and our reckoning with it is supposed to bring us all together as women, but we don’t want to talk about the other thing that makes it difficult,” Clayton said. “When we talk about racism and bigotry, then we have a lot of quiet white women.”

In addition to sexual harassment protocols, Clayton says that conference organizers need to ensure diversity in their panelists and tell attendees how to report racist behavior.


Though much attention has been focused on dealing with the sexual harassment accusations and immediate repercussions, many believe the impact of this fight and fallout will ultimately benefit the children who read the books. When male authors are more likely to be lionized, it impacts the kinds of books, characters, and stories that end up in the hands of readers, says Ursu, whose next book features a girl who is trying to find power in a society that doesn’t want to listen to her.

“Sometimes we need to take a step back and realize the people we’re really trying to protect and support are our readers, the kids and teens,” Ursu says. We want to make sure there’s a lot of gender and racial diversity.”


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  1. I have been one of the quiet white woman Ms. Clayton references above and I’m accepting ownership of that and pledging to do better. We need to listen thoughtfully to the people in our community pointing out problems of racism with the same open-hearted support and belief we offered those speaking out on sexual harassment and assault, and then we need to take action steps to address the problem, even if it means facing uncomfortable truths. Dhonielle, thank you for speaking out.

  2. Tricia Lawrence says:

    I am another quiet white woman who needs to do better and be better. Women walk forward together now, and I pledge to make sure I don’t leave anyone out. Thank you, Anne, Kate, Lin, Dhonielle, and Laurel.

    • KATHY Z.PRICE says:


      From where I see it as a WOC…from this end, Trish Lawrence–not so quiet. Not quiet at all. A great support and a fierce loyal advocate. #ShesAlreadyDoingBetterAlreadyBeingBetter

  3. Michelle Leonard says:

    Thank you to the ladies who are pushing for change, and especially to Dhonielle. No matter how uncomfortable it may be to raise awareness whenever we see discrimination, we must have these conversations. There are many layers to this problem. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it.

  4. Thank you, Anne, Kate, Lin, Dhonielle, and Laurel–and to Drew for this piece. There are many layers to this problem. Verbal harassment. Physical harassment. Racism. As we peel back each one, the revelations and stories that unfold are sometimes shocking and always painful. We all need to be better advocates for the women speaking out. I feel I’ve had white woman blinders on through much of my career, oblivious to some of the horrific comments WOC have received in person and in social media. I vow to be a better advocate, and I’m deeply sorry it took me this long to become aware of what was going on. Indeed there is much work to do, but it is good work, well overdue in doing.

  5. As a part of a secret online publishing diversity group I stopped posting after we were punked from an everyone is involved action into yet another panel with the same old people, with certain authors vying for a piece of the panel pie saying how they were the top authors and deserved to talk. Some diversity :eye roll:

  6. Anon3, can you clarify what happened? I’m confused.

  7. This diversity group was mostly women run by a male. And in the end the male got the glory and publication from the help of the women who supplied info. Although, good that the info was imparted to the public, the hierarchy of the group was the same old. Women getting info, supplying ideas, and the males not saying or doing anything until they could sit on a panel or talk.

  8. Just another voice thanking everyone here for their work. I look forward to seeing updated policies from all conferences on sexual harassment and racism, and pledge to work my hardest at ensuring true inclusivity in all projects, events, and publicity with which I am involved.

  9. Sorry, I just have to ask the School Library Journal this question: The last article got closed for comments due to what I guess were some anonymous postings. Why will this article allowing more anonymous postings be any different? Do you think this is responsible?

  10. I am happy this is coming to light, and that people are trying to discuss the disparity between the industry discussing sexism/harassment and racism. #solidarityisforwhitewomen. That being said I am appalled there has not been further discussion of the sexual harassment allegations against Kiera Drake and that she was able to sign with an agent again so quickly. Do better publishing.

  11. Thank you for this article, and for all the hard work done by Anne, Dhonielle, and everyone who shared there story.

  12. Thanks to the last article, Dashner and Asher have been exposed. What of the other men named – Willems, de la Peña, Federle. Will they also be taken to task? Or are they somehow protected in all of this?

    • Margot Fein says:

      Yes! I just posted about this. I’m horrified and so disappointed. I’m on a loop where women were vilifying some of those men named one second and then instantly defending de la Peña. “Oh, Matt is so wonderful! I can’t believe he’d behave this way! I mean, he’s just flirty!” I even saw one horrible person suggest that because he’s attractive, this was just women being angry because he shot them down. What on earth?!

    • Ishta Mercurio says:

      Investigations are happening in at least one of the cases you mentioned. These things can take time, and they rely on people who have been harassed working up the courage to come forward and speak their truth to the people conducting the investigation. The best thing you can do is support anyone you know who has been harassed, and believe them. If they choose to speak, then something will be done. But it has to be their choice.

  13. So much admiration for the brilliant women quoted in the article, and who are doing the work to make children’s publishing safe and inclusive for everyone. We need to work together to ensure that sexism, racism, and other forms of discrimination and harassment are no less Boger tolerated in the industry.

  14. *longer. Dangit.

  15. Anon: what specifically are you accusing Willems and the others of doing? Did they do something to you or are you just parroting what another anonymous person said under the last article?

    • Margot Fein says:

      Sarah – Some of the posts on that article were really chilling. I don’t believe they were all made up. And also, many of the names were named multiple times. I believe those women, and I believe publishing has done them a disservice by ignoring the accusations.

      • Ishta Mercurio says:

        Investigations are being conducted, but they require that these accusers work up the courage to come forward to the people who can make decisions about how to handle and discipline harassers. I know this is frustrating for you, but please try to be patient. Support anyone you know who has been harassed. And please understand that by saying that publishing is ignoring victims, you make it harder for victims to believe that they will be heard, and you make it harder for victims to come forward.

  16. Thank you for the clear ask, for BOTH reporting policies and diversity on panels. I would like to ask for even more because this is the time to truly change. Malinda Lo took time out of her writing to provide the evidence Ursu said she knew was there, but simply did not have … about the intersections of race, gender, sexual identity and harassment:
    The mentality that breeds sexual and racial harassment is not isolated to those areas. Instead, this harassment is born out of warped perceptions. Individuals that experience entitlement, power, and privilege see other people as less than and as objects.
    Instead of signing pledges, I ask the children’s literature community – authors, scholars, librarians, teachers, editors, would-be-editors, and publishers, to all learn how to deal with conflict because NOT dealing with conflict has gotten us here.

  17. Margot Fein says:

    I haven’t seen this anywhere, but there is something to be said about how publishing responded to the previous SLJ article and the authors within. Jay Asher isn’t exactly churning out new books, and James Dashner can’t replicate the Maze Runner series. They’re both high-profile wins for publishing “doing something about harassment” without actually losing much money (13RW is still going to make a ton of money, so is TMR). But when other people got called out…people like Matt de la Peña (whose accusers’ accounts were horrifyingly chilling, y’all–go back and read the raw gaslighting one) and Sherman Alexie…crickets. Alexie and de la Peña are DARLINGS of kidlit right now. They could write a grocery list and publishers and awards committees would fall over themselves to laud it. But I’ve been hearing stories about Matt for at least two years. Publishing isn’t taking a real stand…it basically shouted down many of these victims, who must feel even worse today than they did before they posted. It’s awful. I’m sorry to those women, and to all women who feel as though they weren’t heard. I believe you. I stand with you.

    • Thanks for pointing this out. If we are only talking about gender and not race and power and capitalism, we aren’t having conversations that will change much of anything.

  18. Please understand that anonymous internet accusations aren’t enough. Publishers and agents have lawyers too, and need evidence to satisfy those lawyers in order to break contracts and make statements. For those who have been publicly dumped, there was enough evidence to do so. It’s not that people don’t care, but they need direct complaints. If you have one and feel comfortable, please make it. Even sending it on anonymously will allow them to take steps to prevent future problems.

  19. As a woman who has spent the last decade dealing with the trauma of unwanted attention and past misbehavior from Sherman Alexie, I am sad that he is exempt from rebuke. I guess money wins the day.

  20. Anonymous, there are journalists working on stories about Alexie. If you’d be willing to tell yours please see Debbie Reese’s Twitter Page.

    No one is being protected. Victims need to come forward somehow, that’s all.

  21. Anonymous Truth says:

    The difference between a rumor mill and a whisper network is that one deals with information that is unverifiable and impossible to examine for credibility, and the second is the other way around. Facts, please.

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