The World

I won’t be able to attend another Book Expo with the same level of comfort ever again

A recent article of sexual harassment in the YA community has sparked an important conversation, and revealed some harsh truths.

In January, the School Library Journal published an article that shed light on the sexual harassment that exists in the children’s publishing industry. The unnamed writer, narrated the story of how she was harassed by illustrator David Diaz, at the 2012 SCWBI ( Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference. An aspiring writer at that time, it took her some years to speak out about her experience, following Diaz’ resignation from the SCWBI’s board in 2017 December.

A lot of things happened in the wake of this article. The readers have been horrified, disturbed and alarmed at the offenses that have been going on the industry all this time. The writer publicly announced herself as Ishta Mercurio, and she gave the courage for many more victims in the community and the industry to speak up. YA author Ally Condie ( Matched Trilogy ) posted a thread pointing out the instances she had felt harassed by male peers in the industry. Author Anne Ursu followed up with a Medium article that revealed more truths. “When you believe you are a professional and someone informs you they see you as a sex object, it can shatter your sense of self and your sense of safety,” she wrote, breaking the silence on the gross and scary side of the publishing industry. Her article included narratives of authors and conference attendees, whose experiences will definitely send shivers down your spine, at least it did to me.

As days passed, we got to hear names. And the revelation of the true face of such beloved writers and respected professionals in the industry has given way to a tough yet powerful couple of days as victims came clean about their experiences and accusers. The list of abusers looks like this.

  • Jay Asher, YA author (13 Reasons Why)
  • James Dashner, YA author (Maze Runner series)
  • Sherman Alexie, YA author (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian)
  • Matt de la Pena, YA author (Last Stop on Market Street)
  • Stephan Pastis, Comic Artist (Pearls Before Swine, Timmy Failure )
  • Richard Paul Evans, YA Author ( Michael Vey, The Walk)
  • Tristina Wright, YA author (27 Hours)
  • Chris Howard, YA author ( Rootless) – second hand account
  • Tim Wynne Jones, YA author (Blink and Caution)
  • Tessa Gratton, YA author (The Blood Journals) – second hand account
  • Tiffany Rosenthal Hofmann, freelance editor/acquisition editor for Filles Vertes Publishing
  • Tim Ferdele, YA author ( The Great American Whatever)
  • James A.Owen, YA author ( The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica Series) – second hand account
  • Michael Neff, Director of the New York Pitch Conference
  • Stefane Marsan, Editor
  • Mark Gottlieb, Agent – Second hand account
  • Steven Salpeter, Agent – Second hand account
  • Mo Willems, Picture book author ( Pigeon series)

(All of these names were compiled from the information gathered from Anne Ursu’s survey and the comments under the School Library Journal article. Ethically and personally, I believe all these victims, but I know I can’t accuse anyone officially. )

Aspiring authors have been harassed by industry veterans. People from the higher ranks have used their privilege to their advantage. Authors have exploited their fans’ hero worship and respect. How many of these authors’ books have we all read and loved? How many of these people have we been friends of, personally and admired greatly?

I am a book blogger and have been involved in this community for years. I have attended book conferences, flying all the way to the USA from my country (Sri Lanka), all alone, based on the trust and sense of security I have always felt within the community. Today that belief is shaken, and the rude awakening has made me want to see everything in a new light.

How many times have I shrugged off incidents that might have happened to me? How many offenses have I failed to see despite it happening right next to me? And how many times have made someone uncomfortable, however unintentional it might have been?

I know one of the accused up on that list personally. She has been a person I admire, we’ve been Twitter mutuals, and I’ve been so excited to see her at a convention. I’ve hugged her, fangirled over her, and when I see a victim who was more or less a reader like me accuse her, I felt shattered. The knee-jerk and selfish reaction was denial, but then I caught myself soon. When I believe all the victims, how can I not believe one, just because the accused is someone I know?

The particular author I mentioned above has claimed she’s innocent. She mentioned that she’s been assaulted herself, and she would never do something like that. Like I said before, part of me really wants to believe it, but that part of me is the worst kind of hypocrite. And as author Courtney Milan put it, “Victims of assault can still assault.”

Author Jay Asher responded to the allegations, however, if you are waiting for an apology, you’ll be mistaken. The author opened up to Buzzfeed that he left SCWBI on his own account, and that he was the person who was being harassed.

It’s a tough discussion, but I am glad we’re doing this. However, there’s no point in the conversation alone, unless it sparks some action. Because everyone can tweet their support or write an article about how they sympathize with the victims. Even hypocrites can, as YA author Sandhya Menon revealed, “Men who’ve harassed me are parading around Twitter as supporters and allies right now, pledging to take a stand against the very same harassment they’ve perpetrated.”  And author Heidi Heilig exclaims, “the thing that strikes me hardest about all this is: sure, not everyone knows. BUT A LOT OF POWERFUL PEOPLE DO KNOW, AND THEY DO NOTHING.”

It’s time for everyone in the YA publishing industry to step up and do what’s right. Author Gwenda Bond invited everyone to sign an anti-harassment pledge. Author Adam Gitwitz initiated a Facebook group for the men of the industry “to be part of a conversation” that would “help fight sexual harassment and assault” in the field. Author Kosoko Jackson started a LGBTQIA whisper, and author Alexandra Duncan has put together a spreadsheet of anti harassment resources at Cons and Festivals.

We are in a dire need to make this community a safe place. Publishers, people of higher rank in the industry, authors, editors, agents – it’s time to step up and confront the abusers and make sure that there’s less of a chance for it to happen again. I would never be able to go to another Book Expo with the same level of comfort, but we really need to do what we can, so that it doesn’t become worse.