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Q&A: Utah author Shannon Hale on sexual harassment in the children's book world

SALT LAKE CITY — Recent allegations against major figures in the children's book world — including Utah's James Dashner — prompted the New York Times to assert in February that children's publishing is having its own #MeToo movement.

Earlier this year, author Anne Ursu conducted a survey regarding sexual harassment in children's publishing. She detailed her findings in a Feb. 7 article on Medium but did not name specific authors nor was her article open for comments. In the wake of her piece, commenters took to a previous School Library Journal piece, accusing Dashner, Jay Asher and Sherman Alexie of sexual harassment. Dashner issued an apology on Twitter a fews days later.

Best-selling author and Utah resident Shannon Hale spoke with the Deseret News about why the book world may be susceptible to sexual harassment, why it shouldn't be tolerated and what adults can do to raise a more empathetic generation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: Were you surprised by the recent news that children’s and YA publishing also has problems with sexual harassment?

Shannon Hale: I was very surprised and that shows my own naïveté, I guess. I’m always wanting to think the best of everybody. And I personally have never felt sexually harassed in the children’s book business. Part of that may be that I co-write with my husband a lot and we travel together, so I’m just in a different situation. Everyone’s, by and large, so great and I have worked in several different industries, and children’s books by far have the most dedicated and lovely people I’ve ever worked with.

I kind of blindly went along thinking, "Glad it's not a problem here!" But that’s the very kind of situation where harassment and abuse can flourish. Now that I think about it, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Because in a cultural environment where everyone is supposed to be nice and everyone’s supposed to be kind, we’re supposed to ignore and not talk about the bad parts. That’s where people who are abusive can really flourish, where people who are harassed or abused feel like they don’t have a voice to speak up.

Authors Brandon Mull and Shannon Hale speak at a young adult event at the Provo City Library.
Authors Brandon Mull and Shannon Hale speak at a young adult event at the Provo City Library.
Provided by Gene Nelson

DN: Do you think the book industry — or the children’s book industry in particular — is any more susceptible to sexual harassment than other industries?

SH: I think so, yeah. The first thing you need is a power imbalance. It's not just unwanted and unwelcome flirting or touching or innuendo or demands, of course — there’s a whole continuum of what that really means. But there also has to be a power imbalance, because that’s when it's not just flirting, it's not just looking for a date, it's preying on somebody else who doesn’t have as equal a voice or footing as you.

It’s easy to see that in something like Hollywood. I’m not surprised at all that that’s the industry that really blew this up because when you’ve got people who are desperately trying to make it in the business, and you’ve got very high-powered directors and studio execs, that’s a huge power imbalance where those sorts of things can happen. And (it can also happen) in a company, where you have a boss … or someone who very clearly has seniority, has firing power over subordinates. That, of course, is a power imbalance where abuse and harassment can flourish.

I think that was harder to see in the book world because the stakes just aren’t as high. Despite the outside perception, there just is not a lot money in books and there’s not a lot of power in books. It's very easy for us, for published authors and agents and editors, to feel like they don’t have that much power because all of us are just trying to get by and do our best.

However, there is a perception of power. So, if you have a best-selling author and then you’ve got a new writer … , they can look up to that established author as someone who can … get them into the business and that high-powered author could take advantage of that to abuse them or harass them, or to manipulate them, or coerce them into a sexual relationship.

DN: The book world has long emphasized role models and mentors — people we think of as protectors. How do you think these recent allegations will change those roles?

SH: I think it will. People who are in contact with kids every day are really scrutinized — like teachers. They are in a different kind of situation. As an author, you meet with a lot of kids, but not one-on-one — you go in, speak to schools and you leave. So we’re not in a situation where there is a high likelihood for abusing our position against children or young adults.

So it’s really with other adults, (and) where it really seems to happen is in book conferences, where a lot of different writers get together and some seem to have a spotlight shined on them (that says), "These are our superstars," and everyone is looking up to them and admiring them and wanting to be them. I think that’s where the danger really comes in.

But it doesn’t really matter in that situation if we’re children’s book authors or adult book authors or whatever it is, it's the same kind of weird power imbalance that can happen in any industry.

Shannon and Dean Hale are the co-authors of the Princess in Black series, among many other collaborations.
Shannon and Dean Hale are the co-authors of the Princess in Black series, among many other collaborations.
Jenn Florence

But we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. Of course there always is blowback and criticism that some people are being too nitpicky about what constitutes harassment — saying certain things that make people uncomfortable shouldn't be harassment, shouldn’t end people’s careers, and I can understand people’s concern. But at the same time, we’re in children’s books. We have an obligation to not only write things that we think will do no harm, but (also things) we think will really change lives and empower kids and teens. But we also have an obligation to be the kind of people that parents shouldn't be worried about their kids looking up to.

DN: You are writing for a vulnerable community and that does put you in a different position than it does other writers.

SH: Nobody talks to us about this. When you get a book published, you don’t have a published author orientation where you learn the rules — the do's and don’ts, there’s none of that. It’s like: You wrote a book alone and suddenly that qualifies you to be an expert and a role model and a public speaker. I remember being very scared and very lost when suddenly people wanted me to go out and speak and say things. My first book, the advance on it was $10,000. And that was a book I worked on for four years. My second book’s advance was $12,000, my third book’s advance was $12,000.

None of these books had major publicity campaigns — I did not go on book tours. No one really cared about me, I was small change. And so it was very easy in that situation to feel like I was not somebody with any kind of power. I was a mom, I spent most of my days taking care of kids and writing when babies napped and not making near enough to live on. But the perception from the outside was that I was a published author and therefore I had power and influence. So one thing this is forcing all of us — I think the majority of people are not bad people in this industry — but I think it is making all of us take a closer look at us and (ask), "What voice and power do I have? How I am using that? How do I need to be mindful of those who are vulnerable and those who are from vulnerable communities? How do I need to make sure that I’m being wise with my voice and my power and not hurting anyone?"

DN: Do you think that culture of nice that you spoke of has a tendency to silence people’s voices?

SH: Yes, I absolutely do. Not just in the children’s book community, but in any community where the most important value is kindness.

I’m a mom and a parent. I want my kids to be kind. It's a wonderful thing but … you can take it too far. For example, if a child’s in a bullying situation, they should speak up. They should be encouraged to speak up. They should be supported when they speak up and not just be told that you need to be kind no matter what.

We can teach our kids, "It’s OK, you don’t have to stay in a situation where you’re being harmed." Kindness is not the only important thing — it's also important (to use) your voice. You need to feel like you’re heard and validated. I do think that kindness culture can have harmful and unintentional circumstances. … It's not that kindness is bad, but just that in addition to teaching kindness, we teach also to speak truth — be kind but speak truth. …

Shannon and Dean Hale are the authors of the Princess in Black series.
Shannon and Dean Hale are the authors of the Princess in Black series.
Jenn Florence

Another important factor (to keep in mind with sexual harassment issues) is the adoration of men over women. The vast majority of people who have been accused and have been proved to be harassers and/or abusers are men. In the children’s book industry, 80 percent of people who work there are women, from writers to book sellers to librarians to editors to publicists. …

I've seen this in a thousand different ways, the way we honor men’s voices over women’s voices. One small example is that girls are encouraged and praised to read books about boys and girls, whereas boys are only encouraged to read books about boys and shamed for taking an interest in a story about a girl. …

So when abuse or harassment does happen and a woman speaks up or a girl speaks up and says that a man or a boy did this to me, we’re more likely to believe the man who says, "No, I didn’t," than to believe the woman because we have already established that (men's) voices are more important.

And it's not just men who believe men, but women believing men. And you can see this come out as women have come out and accused people — the majority of people who have come out and said, "Oh, I don’t believe that’s true," and defending the men are women. We all buy into this cultural belief that men are more important.

And whenever I say that I get people saying, "So you think women are more important?" as if it has to be either/or. … We automatically make this hierarchy, instead of saying, "Can’t both be important at the same time? Can’t we just honor both instead of just constantly assuming that the man is more important?" …

DN: It’s interesting to me that many of these accusations have come over the comments sections rather than in formal ways. Why do you think that is?

SH: Well, first of all, in this community, we don’t have an HR department. We don't have anyone to report to, so there’s really not anywhere to go. We don’t all work for the same company — we don’t work for any company! Writers are all self-employed.

… And I think for a long time, there was the whisper network. There were women warning other women, "Be careful with this guy, don’t get in an elevator with this guy," kind of a thing. But that’s not a great way to do it because not everyone’s on the whisper network. And when something happens to you in isolation, it's easy to feel like it’s your fault — it must have been just you. But if you could see that this guy has done this to 20 other women, then you understand, "It's not me. I didn’t ask for this. This is why I’m feeling so bad." …

Utah author Shannon Hale, pictured here Jan. 31, 2006, won a Newbery Honor Award for her novel "The Princess Academy." She is the author of numerous bestselling books.
Utah author Shannon Hale, pictured here Jan. 31, 2006, won a Newbery Honor Award for her novel "The Princess Academy." She is the author of numerous bestselling books.
Bloomsbury Publishing

One of the (accused) authors has already gotten a lawyer and threatened to sue people who accused him. So there are consequences for speaking out and some of the women who have spoken out have been harassed by other women and accused of lying, just wanting attention and etc. So I’m not surprised that it’s come out in anonymous comments in blog posts, because no one knew where to talk about it. They want to talk. They want to get it off their chest. Some people have been holding onto these things for years, just cankering their soul, but they don’t know where to say it. I think there’s a really interesting phenomenon how it happened.

DN: In Utah, you are part of what seems to be a fairly close-knit writers community. What are writers saying among themselves about these recent sexual harassment allegations in the book world?

SH: I think it’s been really tough, especially as one of our own was one of the people named, and so there’s a lot of personal feelings about it. You hope that it’s wrong, … but at the same time, you need to honor the voices of the women who are coming forward and listen to them, because it’s very, very unlikely that women make false sexual harassment claims. It almost never happens.

So the odds are that they are telling the truth, especially when there are multiple accusers, so it is hard and it’s emotional. I think it shook a lot of people up. There are friendships that have been strained. I don’t think we’ve quite found our footing and figured out where we’re coming out of it.

DN: James Dashner, in a recent Twitter comment, wrote that he is “deeply sorry” regarding the allegations against him and that he never intentionally hurt another person. Do you feel he owes his readers any more than that?

SH: It’s hard for me to speak specifically about James. I’ve known him for a very long time and out of respect for his family, I haven’t wanted to speak particularly about his case. However, I have noticed a couple of instances recently where men have been accused, have apologized and it was really good and everyone accepted their apology. And they’ve come out of it OK.

DN: What do you think we — as readers, as parents, as teachers and as adults — can do to combat these long-held social beliefs? Do you have any thoughts on what the action item is?

SH: I do! It’s a very simple way to start: I would say give kids books about characters that are outside their own experience. Obviously, I’m a writer and so I do this because I believe that stories change lives. There’s no better way to develop empathy (than to read about) people we might never meet and experience (life) through their eyes. And too often we only give kids books about people that look like them and live lives like them. And not only giving boys books with female protagonists, in addition to all of the wonderful books with male protagonists, (but) also giving them books … about people of color, (characters with) different economic backgrounds, characters with disabilities — all kinds of characters with different experiences. That simple act can be revolutionary in a kid's life and allow them (to) grow up in world where they see all the people as fully human, not just the ones that look like them.