Ishta Mercurio Goes Public as David Díaz Accuser

Ishta Mercurio says the successful children's book illustrator fondled her hair and made a sexually suggestive comment at the 2012 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) annual conference.
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Still, Mercurio, who at that point in her career was an unpublished aspiring children’s book author, did not complain about the incident at the time.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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clara

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

Posted : Feb 20, 2018 11:03


Barb

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.

Posted : Feb 19, 2018 08:32


Worried Writer

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.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:08

Janet

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.

Posted : Feb 15, 2018 05:08

Worried Writer

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.

Posted : Feb 18, 2018 02:02


Susan Adrian

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.

Posted : Feb 14, 2018 04:07


Anonymous

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.

Posted : Feb 14, 2018 02:33


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