The #MeToo Reckoning Has Come To YA And Children's Literature, And There's Something You Can Do About It
Beyond the high-profile politicians and Hollywood-hailing perpetrators brought into light by the #MeToo Movement is an entirely different (and equally, if not in some ways more disturbing) cast of characters whose actions — from abuse of power, to harassment, to sexual assault — are being called into question: children's and young adult authors. So many, in fact, that the New York Times called the increasing allegations the “children’s book industry’s own #MeToo Movement”.
YA novelists with allegations against them include Sherman Alexie, the author of 26 books, including the National Book Award-winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Jay Asher, author of the bestselling novel 13 Reasons Why; James Dashner, who wrote The Maze Runner speculative YA fiction series; and Daniel Handler, the writer behind the pen name Lemony Snicket and the A Series of Unfortunate Events book series. Others with allegations against them include Caldecott Medal-winning illustrator David Díaz, illustrator Giuseppe Castellano, DC Comics editor Eddie Berganza, editors at both The Paris Review and New Republic, and more.
And these accusations, it seems, are just the beginning — a staggering thought, considering that, as Publishers Weekly recently reported, women make up roughly 80 percent of the book publishing industry; often more in children’s and YA literature.
Allegations against the authors above, and others, first appeared — or, at least reached the #MeToo Movement fever pitch — with an article by YA fantasy author Anne Ursu, published on Medium. That article, "Sexual Harassment in the Children’s Book Industry", which documented instances of everything from abuses of professional power, to inappropriate comments at book parties and editing meetings, to totally unwelcome touching, didn’t name any authors specifically — however the comments section and social media posts Ursu’s article inspired, did. Her article was based on a survey Ursu conducted about sexual harassment in publishing, which garnered over 90 responses and was in-part inspired by Book Riot writer Kelly Jensen’s work on sexual harassment in libraries. (Ursu was clear to note that while most of the survey responses she received shared instances of men harassing women, two of the responses highlighted women behaving inappropriately towards both male and female colleagues.)
“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,” wrote Ursu, on Medium, later continuing:
“We work in children’s books, and we like to think we are different, somehow. We value “kindness.” The ranks of publishers are populated with women. And everyone is so nice, right? But we aren’t different, and before we can do anything about sexual harassment, we need to face that reality. And the reality is that a culture of “kindness” can silence people who have been harassed, that women can be complicit in a culture of sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and that the people who we work alongside, whose books we care about, who we like, can be sexual harassers.”
"I do think if you harass and abuse women, you don’t get to write for kids and teens," Ursu told Bustle in an interview conducted after the publication of the Medium article. "This is a privilege and an honor."
In the wake of allegations, a number of bestselling authors have been dropped by their agents, including Asher and Dashner, and back in February publisher Random House announced it would be dropping any future books by Dashner as well. Netflix recently announced, in a comment to Entertainment Weekly, that Asher was also not involved in the second season of the TV adaptation of 13 Reasons Why.
But YA's own #MeToo Movement didn't stop there. Lin Oliver, the executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, announced publicly that Asher had been expelled from SCBWI (a claim the author denies) because of the allegations and violations to the organization’s code of conduct regarding harassment. Shortly thereafter, YA and children’s book author Gwenda Bond invited people in the industry to sign an anti-harassment pledge on her website (inspired by a similar pledge, written by science fiction author John Scalzi five years earlier) committing to not attending any book events that "lack or fail to enforce a specific anti-harassment plan."
And from written apologies and reflections to promises of seeking counseling, most of the accused have responded.
But what does this mean for you, the reader?
Outside of the possible disappointment, heartbreak, and betrayal you might feel upon learning that even the children’s and YA book industry isn’t a safe space for women — and that some YA authors you might have read and loved during your own young adult days are responsible — there are a couple things you can do.
For one, consider your purchasing power. Refusing to support the work written by writers with a well-documented history of sexual assault is one place to start. Buying more books from the writers — both women and men — who are spreading awareness of sexism, harassment, and sexual assault throughout the publishing industry and actively working to combat it is a great way to put your money where your ideals are. Also consider reading more YA literature that tackles issues of sexual assault: titles like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali, The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith, and more. The #MeToo Movement, after all, is all about telling stories, voicing difficult truths, and raising the volume on that which used to be silenced.