Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks

Illustrator David Díaz resigned from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators board after sexual harassment complaints emerged about his past.
UPDATED February 14, 2018: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators executive director Lin Oliver, who originally declined to comment for this 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.   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. (See updated story: "Ishta Mercurio Goes Public as David Díaz Accuser.") 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 Still, the writer, who at that point in her career was an unpublished aspiring children’s book author, did not complain about the incident at the time.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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We Closed the Comments. Here’s Why. | Editor’s Note | School Library Journal

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 07:56

SLJ Admin

On behalf of Steven Salpeter: Hi Anona and anon and supportive, A friend called me today to let me know my name had popped up in this thread, which I had stopped following after a few weeks as other commentary elsewhere seemed to be carrying the torch of dialogue. I was shocked to find my name on this list, but was not as horrified as I have been to hear about some of the offenses people in our industry have committed. If you’re reading this comment, you’re probably already aware that the reckoning we’re having in our culture for sexual misconduct is extremely important and unfortunately long overdue. If you feel this way too, I want to you know I agree and support you. I really want to know if I’ve ever made someone uncomfortable if they are willing to share. For Anona’s question: If anyone is aware of something I have done or said that hurt someone in any way connected with issues of gender identity or perceived roles, sexuality, race, or something otherwise hurtful about who they are I would fully support you in your taking the opportunity heal in whatever way will help you, including if you choose to tell your story as many have done. I wouldn’t do anything like the acts of harassment or misconduct people have been accused of in the press in many industries, but while I can’t think of anything I have done that could fall into the categories people have named in this thread, the nature of other issues like microaggressions and power imbalances are that they can be deeply ingrained and it’s scary to me to think I could have really hurt someone some time and don’t know about it. If I have done something I hope to be able to help the victim in any way I can and keep learning about gender disparity and the other important diversity issues in our industry. Even those of us that care can mess up. If someone is out there and I can apologize to you personally if you would be helped by an apology, I would love the opportunity to learn about whatever mistake I could have made. If you want to, you can reach out however makes you feel comfortable, like through the agency’s website or through a third party. Or, if it’s helpful for you to hear, I want you to know I would be in full support of you telling your story anonymously and would support its publication if I was asked. By answering for myself I don’t mean to imply that others named on this page are not guilty of sexual harassment, misconduct, or inappropriate behavior. I believe women and other brave people who have stories to tell, and will leave commentary to those experts who are leading the charge. I hope this remains a safe space for the kidlit community and those hoping to join it. People in power in the business are listening and hopefully starting to do more to enact change. Regards, Steven Salpeter

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 07:55


Dashner is the first person whom I know well enough to call my friend who has been accused. There have been lots of people whom I admire who have turned out to be sexual predators (most notably Jesse Lacey), but this is the first time I've found out that someone whom I actually know and like as a person may have actually been a monster the whole time. Obviously I believe the women, although I'll wait for harder evidence before I sever my ties with Dashner.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:25


Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish, and James Frey keeps on paddling. I've heard stories about Frey and having met him I believe every one.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:09


Not saying that I know that they're true, I'm just saying that his name has come up.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 06:54


Bringing up Ireland, McKinney and Heilig does derail the sexual harassment conversation, but it is true that they are harassers who gladly use their platforms to publicly abuse anyone they don't like. Calling out three people who happen to be women of color on their nasty behavior is not the same as attacking women of color as a group. There are plenty in the industry who use their platforms to speak up against racism and misogyny without also directing hate at people and starting petty drama for no reason. It's not sexual, but it is harassment. They use their victimization to victimize others while falsely accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being "problematic", "racist", and "trash." That, in addition to the sexual harassment, is no big secret anymore.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 12:53


I agree 100%. LL McKinney has attacked me horribly in the past after I stuck up for Jodi Meadows after she wrote a book with a black heroine despite being herself white. She made me feel completely worthless. Ireland and Heilig also have a deep love of ad hominem attacks and are remarkably petty.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:16


I agree 100%. LL McKinney has attacked me horribly in the past after I stuck up for Jodi Meadows after she wrote a book with a black heroine despite being herself white. She made me feel completely worthless. Ireland and Heilig also have a deep love of ad hominem attacks and thrive in divisiveness.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:17


Dangling modifier patrol- Jodi Meadows wrote a book with a black heroine despite being herself white, Justina Ireland attacked her, I stuck up for Jodi on Goodreads and LL said some truly horrible things about me and every time I tried to explain my position she'd just repeatedly shout ad hominem attacks at me until I began questioning my self-worth and actually couldn't go on Goodreads for months.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:28