Children’s Literature and the #MeToo Movement

This past week, award-winning middle grade author Anne Ursu wrote a scathing and important overview of sexual harassment in the industry.  The essay has been shared thousands of times on social media and important conversations have started.  A few days later, people started naming names in the comments of a School Library Journal article related to the topicAuthor Jay Asher and illustrator David Diaz have been expelled from the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators for a pattern of harassing behavior. 

metooAs we’ve seen with the rise of the #MeToo movement, no industry is immune from sexual harassment and related issues.  Of course, most women were already deeply familiar with the problems of harassment. However, as readers many of us view books as an escape.  As educators and students, we often put authors and illustrators on a pedestal and treat them as “rock stars”. I encourage you to read the linked pieces and the comments.  As educators, we need to be thoughtful about the books and authors we elevate and these issue, while uncomfortable to discuss, is important.

In light of recent events, author Kate Messner shared the following advice for educators:

I’m getting some emails & messages from educators this week, asking what they can do in response to Anne Ursu’s important piece about sexual harassment in the children’s book world, and the subsequent #metoo stories that have been shared as a result. So I wanted to share some thoughts…

If you host a book festival, conference or other multi-author/illustrator event:

1. Institute a code of conduct & anti-harassment policy if you don’t already have one. If you do already have one, now is a good time to review it. Make sure it’s shared publicly and widely. And make sure there are clear reporting procedures and consequences for violations.

2. Please consider the larger climate of adulation of men in children’s literature that contributes to this problem and refrain from participating in it. We can all appreciate brilliant writing and illustration without gushing about who’s hot or cute or so cool. Yes, this happens. A lot.

3. Look at the roster for your panel/festival/conference. If it’s not made up of at least half women and at least half people of color, it’s not really representing the children we’re all here to serve. That imbalance also helps to create an atmosphere where abuse of any kind is more likely and reporting of it feels less safe.

I’m also getting notes from people who host author visits and are worried that they’ll unknowingly invite someone who’s part of this problem. The solution to this is the same as the solution to other kinds of vetting educators do for author visits – ask around. Most of us regularly answer questions and are happy to do so. I get emails from educator-friends asking, “Hey, is xyz author good with K-2 kids?” or “How do you think xyz author would be for middle school?” If you’re worried about this issue, reach out to some women authors. “Hey, I’m considering inviting xyz author. What do you think?” If there are red flags, you’ll hear them in the responses.

And what about the books on our shelves and in our curriculum?  Kelly Jensen, an associate editor and community manager at Book Riot and librarian, offers advice in her post titled “What to Do With Books By Authors Accused of Assault, Racism, or Other Inappropriate or Illegal Behaviors”.  She reminds teachers that weeding classroom books that aren’t circulating is fine but removing books all together is censorship.  For whole class reads, she suggests bringing issues to the attention of your colleagues and administrators and having a conversation.  Can a different book accomplish the same goals?  Is there a better book, perhaps an #ownvoices book, that deals with the same themes or topics?

If you are part of a larger organization that hosts authors at conferences or events, be aware that many authors and illustrators are pledging to no longer participate in events that do not have strong codes of conduct and anti-harassment policies.  NJCTE is currently drafting our own code of conduct and anti-harassment policy.  As an inclusive organization that strives to make sure all members and participants feel welcome and safe, we hope that you will reach out to us with comments, questions, or ideas.

Written by Sarah Mulhern Gross, Vice-President and Board Member, NJCTE, NBCT and English Teacher, High Technology High School, Lincroft, NJ

Posted by Audrey Fisch, blog editor for NJCTE

New Jersey Council of Teachers of English, the New Jersey state affiliate of NCTE, the National Council of Teachers of English

Children’s Literature and the #MeToo Movement