Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators executive director Lin Oliver told faculty for the organization's upcoming summer conference that she will retire at the end of this year. Oliver confirmed to PW that she had been planning her retirement, which will coincide with the 50th anniversary of the organization, for some time. The July 19 e-mail came amid ongoing turmoil in the organization and widening calls for change from within its ranks—change Oliver told PW she supports.
Oliver referred to the disputes that have, in recent weeks, enveloped the organization she cofounded with Steve Mooser in 1971, writing: “SCBWI is at a crossroads and it’s time for new visionaries.”
The controversy at the organization began after SCBWI posted a statement against anti-Semitism to its website and to Facebook on June 10, following weeks of rising violence against Jews worldwide. The statement, which members within the organization had urged SCBWI to issue, was met with calls for a similar statement on Islamophobia by authors including Palestinian-American writer and educator Razan Abdin-Adnani.
When SCBWI’s equity and inclusion officer, April Powers, declined to issue a statement, exchanges grew heated. Powers, who is Black and Jewish, was criticized for blocking Abdin-Adnani. Powers also deleted some posts she made in exchanges with members. Powers subsequently stepped down from her post—voluntarily, according to her statement and communications from the SCBWI—on June 27.
In early July, conversations between SCBWI members, held in a private Facebook group for people in the children’s literature community, led to multiple efforts to formulate an open letter to the organization’s leadership. Over the weekend of July 10, those efforts were combined, resulting in a single open letter calling for increased focus on SCBWI’s organizational structure and finances, along with improved policies regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion. To date, the letter, which was finalized and published on July 12, has garnered more than 900 signatures.
In previous emails to membership, Oliver had already committed to some changes. But in recent weeks, it became clear that members expected a more fundamental restructuring of SCBWI. The week of July 5, Laurie Halse Anderson, Meg Medina, Linda Sue Park, and Melissa Stewart stepped down from SCBWI’s board of advisors and its equity and inclusion committee; the entire committee has now resigned. On July 16, the entire Rocky Mountain Chapter regional team announced their impending resignations as well.
Stewart wrote on her website that her decision was intended to convey the need for more substantive change.
“Right now, the organization’s most pressing need is to carefully rethink and rebuild its structure, so that it can be stronger going forward,” she wrote. “I feel the best way for me to contribute to that more positive future is to give up my seat on the board of advisors and the EI committee. My hope is that it will be filled by a creator of color, so that the voices of people from traditionally marginalized communities can be further amplified within the organization and within the children’s publishing community.”
Social Media and Death Threats
But while calls for change among the organization’s membership and leadership have grown more focused, for weeks, outside perceptions fueled an increasingly dangerous situation. On Twitter, the debate attracted a number of partisan voices seemingly unaffiliated with the SCBWI—and, in some cases, unrelated to children’s book publishing as a whole—and evolved into an ideological quarrel centering differing perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian debate and cancel culture.
Exchanges were fed and amplified by media accounts of the controversy, accounts that Oliver said contained falsehoods. These accounts included a claim by Harvard Law School emeritus professor Alan Dershowitz in a Newsweek opinion piece that insinuated, without evidence, that Powers was pressured to resign despite Powers’s social media statement noting that, “for clarity, the SCBWI did not fire me or ask me to resign.” (Disclosure: One of the authors of this article holds a position at Harvard Law School; he has no affiliation or contact with Dershowitz.)
“The fact was wrong, that [Powers] was fired, and the sentiment was wrong,” Oliver said of Dershowitz’s article, which also provided an inaccurate number for the organization’s membership and misspelled Powers’s name. All three misstatements remain in the current piece posted on Newsweek’s website.
Other publications and groups, right and left, weighed in with various inaccuracies as well. An editorial in the Washington Examiner opened with the misleading inference that Powers lost her job rather than resigning; later, the New York Post editorial board also weighed in. Earlier, PEN America issued a statement of concern that Powers had “resigned under pressure” while linking to another Newsweek article that did not substantiate the claim. On Twitter, Tablet journalist Yair Rosenberg, linking to the statement in which Powers stated that she had resigned, wrote that she was “apparently fired.”
Oliver, who practices Judaism, said that the attention in the media and on social media attracted trolls, which led to death threats, harassment, and accusations that she was being anti-Semitic. She also said that members of her staff were targeted, including multiple people who identify as Jews. The FBI is currently investigating the threats. Powers also posted to her Facebook page about social media trolls, decrying the threats and online abuse targeted at SCBWI and herself, and calling out what she described as “particularly horrific unmasked anti-Semitism outside of the SCBWI.”
Increasingly lost in the flurry of commentary were the intentions of the children’s book writers and illustrators who authored the letter. “For the organization to maintain its value for its membership, there needs to be, as the letter mentions, increased accountability. Spreading the power around. Widening the circles. Less consolidation,” said Ishta Mercurio, an SCBWI member, children’s book author, and one of the initial authors of the open letter.
“The change that needs to happen, in my opinion, is that the extant leadership needs to grow,” Mercurio added. “The executive director needs to be accountable to the membership in a structural way. The connection between the membership and the people who run the organization needs to be strengthened. I hope that they decide to do that, and I hope that they will do that. And it might mean amending the bylaws, because the bylaws as written don’t allow for that. I hope that’s a choice they will make.”
An Organization Poised to Change
In a conversation with PW, Oliver shared sentiments that aligned with Mercurio’s vision. She also admitted missteps in responding to the controversy following the statement on anti-Semitism, and said that Powers’s post refusing to issue a statement on Islamophobia—in which she wrote that the organization would issue a statement against Islamophobia when evidence of its existence was provided—was a “terrible thing to say.”
Having grown the organization from a small gathering of nearly three dozen children’s writers in 1971 into a nonprofit with 27,000 members and 100 chapters over half a century, Oliver said calls for change were appropriate and necessary—as was the need to focus on putting an end to any and all systemic racism in the organization.
“I don't want to be defensive about it, or say we’ve done nothing wrong. We absolutely need help and input and professionalization. We need to work on equity and inclusion,” Oliver said. She said her focus now is to ensure that the actions she takes as she prepares to retire will position SCBWI to succeed in taking those steps.
Members at the 50th anniversary conference, which will be held from July 30 to August 1, will be able to begin that envisioning informally. On August 4, the board of advisors, which steers the organization’s initiatives, will authorize the hiring of an outside company to conduct a DEI audit. Oliver hopes the audit will help the membership move toward a reorganization that includes input from all members. She said that she hopes the process will also ensure that SCBWI will find ways to expand its membership to people who may not currently be able to join because of existing barriers created by the organization, and by society more broadly.
“I feel like that's the sort of inflection point that the organization is at, but it's grown up with enormous love and care and volunteerism and heart,” Oliver said. “At the core of the community is this place where people feel at home, where they can share their vulnerabilities, and where they can share in each other's joys and frustrations. Now it needs to turn into the next iteration of that so that hopefully there's another 50 years.”