In 2013, children's book author Kate Messner found herself on a bus with Daniel Handler, better known as the author Lemony Snicket. They were both guests at the Rhode Island Children's Festival of Books and Authors, riding the bus provided by the organizers to transport authors to the site. In other words, this was a working space filled with professionals. Handler, according to a post written by Messner, overheard her talking to a fellow author about being from the Midwest, and shouted, "Are you a virgin, too?!" In the lobby of a hotel, later, as authors and spouses were being introduced to each other before dinner, Handler joked, "These children's book events always turn into orgies!"
Over the past few weeks, a number of women who work in children's literature have described encounters in which Handler made inappropriate sexual comments in front of and about them. They are all quick to distinguish his behavior from more overtly predatory conduct, but still talk about being made to feel "small." The combination of Handler's power and fame and his habitual "joking" about sex reveals consistent conduct that has had a harmful impact on multiple female children's writers and children's librarians. What's more, in an industry where most creators are functionally freelancers who rely on networking and gatekeepers, Handler's behavior should be understood as workplace sexual harassment.
This is not the first time Handler has been accused of using derogatory humor in inappropriate ways. In 2014, he infamously made a racist joke at the expense of author Jacqueline Woodson, the first African-American woman to win a National Book Award for Young People's Literature. He apologized, but the new allegations suggest a pattern. Meanwhile, Wesleyan University has just announced that Handler (an alumnus) will be their commencement speaker and receive an honorary degree. Among other recipients this year: anti-workplace-harassment advocate Anita Hill.
The world of children's literature is, as the New York Times puts it, having its own "#MeToo moment." Author Anne Ursu started collecting stories from her colleagues about sexual harassment in the industry in December. In February, she published her findings, based on over 90 responses to her survey, plus additional emails and direct messages. In her essay, she documents patterns of unwanted touching, inappropriate sexual comments in the workplace and other professional spaces (especially conferences and festivals), coercion, psychological abuse, physical assault, and suggestions of exchanging sex for professional advancement. Ursu writes that when men treat their would-be colleagues as sexual objects, it can be devastating. "We live in a society centered around powerful men, and thus when a powerful man sees you for who you are you feel validated — and then they pull the rug out from under you," she writes. "He sees you as an object, thus you feel like an object.... And ashamed for ever thinking you were something else in the first place."
Ursu's findings, all delivered anonymously, launched a broad period of introspection within the industry. People began to name their abusers, including major authors and figures in publishing. For example, James Dashner, author of the Maze Runner series, was dropped by his agent and publisher following credible allegations of abusing his power over others. Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why, was expelled from the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for violating their anti-harassment code of conduct. In response to these and other revelations, author Gwenda Bond invited people in the industry to sign a pledge on her website that they would not attend any book events lacking (or failing to enforce) a specific anti-harassment plan. Hundreds of people quickly signed on, including, within a few hours, Daniel Handler. That's when Messner posted her comment.*
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Other women soon joined in. Rosanne Parry, an author, remembers Handler making a crass joke at her expense during a 2014 event at Oregon Literary Arts. A teenager stepped up to tell Handler to knock it off, and so he made a joke at her expense too, then "sauntered off without acknowledgement or apology." Allie Jane Bruce, a children's librarian who has hosted many author and illustrator events, recalls being made uncomfortable when Handler joked about having only one testicle (in the context of his "Uniball" pen) in front of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders. In her comment, she writes, "It was way over the line, and made me feel smaller."
Bruce has declined to provide more details, but multiple people pointed me to her thread on Twitter about how Handler is capable of invoking sophisticated feminist rhetoric when he so chooses. In the thread, Bruce was commenting on a chat about "how to talk about sex" featuring Handler and Sherman Alexie (another children's author, Alexie has been accused of sexual abuse by at least five women). Bruce shared the interview and tweeted, "What you will hear, if you listen, is two cis men who speak the language of liberalism, progressivism, and feminism *perfectly* and are capitalizing on it. Using it to promote themselves and their books."
Angie Manfredi, a youth services librarian, remembers seeing Handler at the 2011 American Library Association conference in New Orleans. He was surrounded by other important people in the industry, and Manfredi says she was the only one of her peers brave enough to step up and say hello. Addressing Handler, Manfredi writes on Bond's website, "I opened with this: 'My friends were too afraid to come talk to you, but I'm not afraid.' You were surrounded by fellow publishing big names, I was a solo female librarian, a nobody and a stranger to you. You looked right at me and said, 'If you're not afraid, go knock on the door of (some random room number) and make out with whoever answers.'" In her comment on Bond's pledge, Manfredi continues, "In front of a large group of ALL of our peers (they're just as much my peers as yours) you [Handler] decided to open with a sexual implication about what I should do with my body."
Over email, Manfredi tells me that she's been recounting the story of when "Lemony Snicket told me to go kiss a stranger" for years. It's stayed with her. "That night was a really great night for me and it was a rare chance that I felt seen by my peers outside of children's librarianship. And then he immediately put me on the defensive, and in just the ickiest way. And I STILL berate myself for just staring for a second and saying, 'Uh, maybe later.'"
Handler's inappropriate sexualizing commentary extends from physical encounters to other realms of professional activity. As it happens, Handler wrote a New York Times review of Messner's 2011 book, Sea Monster's First Day. In the book, a sea monster named Ernest has trouble fitting in at school until he figures out that his big green body makes a great roller coaster for the smaller aquatic creatures. He fits right in! Handler didn't like the book's illustrations, but also described the big plot twist (the roller coaster) in oddly sexualized language: "Imagine telling a teenage girl that the best way to make friends is to offer her body as a carnival ride." The book is about a green, male monster, and is aimed at early elementary school or preschool kids.
Gwenda Bond, who wrote the YA anti-harassment pledge, notes that the first time she met Handler, he referred to her as a "hot blonde." She says that she's received multiple private messages from people sharing similar stories about Handler, but that some of them are from people too nervous to speak out.
I exchanged emails with Ursu about Handler and the broader context in kid lit. Like others, she wants to distinguish between his bad behavior and actions that are truly abusive. Still, Ursu points out that the patterns are the same. She understand why people are hesitant to accuse powerful men of assault and abuse, but laments that "even though people's criticism of Handler is about inappropriate things he's said to them and not sexual assault, they're still afraid to say anything because he's so powerful." Concern about being targeted absolutely permeates both the public comments and emails to me. Handler is one of the most recognizable authors of children's literature in the world, with vast wealth and tens of millions of fans. These women have seen what awaits those who criticize misconduct by beloved creators, and they don't want to become targets. Of course, his reported behavior is not nearly as bad as those of the serious predators, both in the children's literature world and beyond. Still, as each of these people wrote, their encounters with Handler made them feel "small."
Regret at not speaking up sooner co-exists with fear of coming forward. Again and again, in comments on Bond's website and in emails to me, these women wonder if they bear some responsibility for the day that Handler made a racist joke while presenting Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for the work, Brown Girl Dreaming. If they had spoken up about his misconduct sooner, they wonder, would Handler have been kept off the stage? Instead, as Handler introduced Woodson, he made a joke about her being allergic to watermelon. Woodson, in a piece for the New York Times, called it a "wink-nudge joke about being black": "In a few short words, the audience and I were a step back from everything I've written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from." She said that she would keep writing so that "no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another's too painful past."
Handler apologized for his joke and gave $110,000 to "We Need Diverse Books," a non-profit that advocates for wider representation in children's books, and his reputation seems to have recovered. That's a problem, according to a number of authors I interviewed. If Handler's pattern of sexist jokes has an impact on his reputation, but his racist joke doesn't, what does that say about the priorities of the world of children's literature ? Justina Ireland, author of the forthcoming Dread Nation and a proponent of better representation for marginalized voices in kid lit, tells me over email that after Handler's apology, "everyone let out this collective breath and moved on. But that was a moment I never forgot. And when I talk to other black authors, I know they never forgot either."
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Author Tanita Davis certainly hasn't forgotten. On her website, she wonders at Handler's rehabilitation from his humiliation of Woodson. Davis writes, "What are we doing still courting that kind of person to be a speaker and to visit classrooms? Why don't we seem to take the humiliation, shame, and harm of racism as seriously as we're all endeavoring to take the #metoo harassment thing?"
As much as individual bad actors need to be called out, Tracey Baptiste, an author of both fiction and non-fiction aimed at children and young adults, wants us to consider structural issues, particularly at the intersections of capitalism, toxic masculinity, and racism. In an email, she lays out the ways these three forces combine. "Men in kid lit are at the top of the earnings ladder in every aspect of publishing. While the majority of people in publishing houses are women, the people at the top are men. And even though there are far more women writing kid lit than men, huge tours, major book deals, and keynotes at national conferences disproportionately go to men. And of course money means power."
When women do complain, they are examined much more closely than the men. As Baptiste writes: "They are told they're 'excoriating' the men, when their comments are straightforward, and pretty kind in some cases. The thing is, you can tell the commenters are nervous. You can see it in their words." When it comes to race, Baptiste hesitates: "It's hard to know where to begin. But this I do know: Some people who understand about the power differential between men and women are happy to ignore the power differential between white and non-white."
Justina Ireland makes a similar point in her emails to me: "I think people need to understand that this moment has been a long time coming in kid lit, just like with any other industry, and we can't just talk about sexism and sexual harassment/assault without looking at things like ableism, racism, homophobia, etc. Those intersections matter. This is just the beginning, and folks should strap in for a long, messy ride."
What happens next? The temptation, of course, will be for fans to say that Handler was "just joking." Given the stories of rape, blackmail, violence, and the destruction of careers that have emerged during the #MeToo movement, it's easy to trivialize even the most consistent pattern of inappropriate jokes. That's a mistake. It's possible to keep a sense of proportion and nuance while identifying the consequences of this kind of behavior, especially from such a powerful man.
Rebecca Traister, in one of her many excellent essays about this "me too" movement, reminds readers that the behaviors in question are as much about work as about sex. Critics of the movement, even well-intentioned ones (as opposed to the concern trolls I dissect here) worry that linking inappropriate jokes to rape as actions along a continuum leads to "category collapse." Traister responds: "The category collapse ... is being misunderstood in part because we are making a crucial category error. Because the thing that unites these varied revelations isn't necessarily sexual harm, but professional harm and power abuse. These infractions and abuses are related, sometimes they are combined. We must regularly remind everyone paying attention that sexual harassment is a crime not simply on the grounds that it is a sexual violation, but because it is a form of discrimination."
Anne Ursu, in her emails to me, makes a similar argument: Handler's conduct is about work. As Ursu writes, "These 'jokes' at their expense are sexually humiliating. Making sexual jokes to women in a professional setting is sexual harassment. And these women who've talked about it publicly are speaking about feeling ashamed and humiliated." What's more, it's not clear how to address this kind of professional misconduct when it takes place on busses, in hotel lobbies, and in an industry largely made up of independent contractors. "In our very unhealthy work setting with no HR [Human Resources] to report to, no one speaks up, and if they do, they get 'That's Just Daniel being Daniel' and 'It's just a joke! Lighten up!'"
Meanwhile, Ursu notes, talking about sex has become a big part of Handler's brand. He has leveraged his Snicket persona and willingness to talk about sex into a platform. As a result, Handler gets, "fancy town halls to talk about sex, and op-eds in the New York Times. For the women at the butt of these jokes, they just get humiliated. I am troubled that someone who makes sexual jokes at women's expense is held up by our industry as a model for teaching boys how to talk about sex."
Despite the fiasco of making a racist joke at the National Book Awards, Handler's career is doing fine. Netflix is about to release the second season of A Series of Unfortunate Events, based on Snicket's series of novels. Handler's alma mater, Wesleyan University, has just announced that Handler will be the 2018 commencement speaker. (I'm a Wesleyan alumnus too and should say in the interest of full disclosure that I met Handler a few times when I was a freshman and he a senior. To my knowledge, we currently share no friends.) It's hard to understand why Wesleyan chose to honor the man who made a racist joke at an award show on the same stage with whistleblower and anti-workplace harassment activist Anita Hill.
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In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Wesleyan emailed to say that President Michael S. Roth was unavailable for an interview, but that, over the years, "many of our honorees at Commencement were considered controversial, but all made significant contributions to our society, our culture, and to Wesleyan." I replied by asking whether they were really characterizing racist and sexist commentary as merely "controversial," but did not receive an answer by the time of publication.
Daniel Handler did not respond to multiple requests for comment through his publicist. Last night, he posted a statement in a comment on Gwenda Bond’s blog. He referred to his own history as a survivor of sexual abuse, acknowledged that throughout his whole life his "sense of humor has not been for everyone," and said that he "always thought that treating all of my colleagues the same was the best way to dispel the unease that can come from a competitive or self-conscious environment." He also wrote that he has made his email available to anyone who feels the need to speak with him, and that he is "listening and willing to listen ... and learn."
The slow shattering of our great cultural silences around sexual harassment requires thousands of small reckonings. Culture promotes inequality and bias, but the road to significant cultural change often begins by engaging the problems in a sub-group, addressing individual acts and behaviors, and working to improve things in specific organizations and contexts. Sometimes, the reckoning requires examining one's own personal history of perpetrating, or of looking the other way. Other times, we have to accept that a beloved institution isn't immune from protecting bad behavior. Manfredi, the librarian whom Handler told to go make a pass at a stranger, tells me: "For too long, kid lit and YA [Young Adult] lit has done what so many other industries have done: 'Not us! not here! we're different, we're KIND, we write about dragons and wizards and justice and how middle school bullying is wrong and kittens being best friends with dogs, we don't have THAT kind of problem.' That time is over."
Kate Messner, who started this latest conversation about Handler, also hopes for better days. She concludes her comment on the pledge website by saying that she's glad Handler made the anti-harassment pledge. She writes: "I'm taking you at your word. I'm glad you're here. And I'm writing to request that your commitment involve not just signing this and making public statements in support of #metoo, but also rethinking some of your jokes. I understand that being edgy in this way has long been a part of your public persona. But you are talented and funny in so many other ways. You can still be big without making others feel small."
*Update—February 22nd, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jay Asher's name.