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

Anne Ursu wanted to start a conversation about sexual harassment and spur change in the children's publishing industry.
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.

THE RECKONING

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.”

POLICY AND CULTURE

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.”

NOT THE ONLY ISSUE

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.

IMPACT ON THE PAGE

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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Anonymous Truth

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.

Posted : Mar 04, 2018 07:10


Anonymous

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.

Posted : Feb 25, 2018 08:06


Anonymous

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.

Posted : Feb 25, 2018 04:51


Anonymous

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.

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 08:44


Margot Fein

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.

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 12:00

Cory

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.

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 12:00

Laura Jimenez

Margo Fein - you refer to an accusation against matt de la Pena and it seems like there is some text I can't find. Where did you see "people like Matt de la Peña (whose accusers’ accounts were horrifyingly chilling, y’all–go back and read the raw gaslighting one)"?

Posted : Feb 22, 2018 12:00


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