December 9, 2021

It’s tempting to imagine the world of children’s literature as a comforting refuge, populated by compassionate people who want to inspire a joy of reading in the next generation. But to children’s poet Rachel Rooney, there is nothing cuddly about the publishing industry: for her, it is dominated by a vicious clique of progressive writers who sniff-out wrong-think and snuff-out careers.

With nine books and several prizes to her name — her debut collection, The Language of Cat, was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal — Rooney’s career has been marked by success. But now it is over, following what she describes as “two and a half years of intensive bullying for doing nothing more than telling the truth”: namely, that there’s something deeply concerning about the prevailing orthodoxy around gender identity.

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While JK Rowling might be too famous to cancel, those with heterodox views in the foothills of literary fame have two choices: keep quiet or leave. It’s a lesson not only Rooney has been forced to learn: only last year, Gillian Philip, who used to write animal fantasy novels under the name Erin Hunter, was suddenly dropped by her publishers after voicing her support for Rowling’s views on the importance of women-only spaces. She retrained as a lorry driver, noting that “the haulage industry is far more supportive and inclusive — and a lot less misogynistic — than the world of children’s writing”.

Rooney’s path to creative writing is a story in itself. Following a “toxic relationship” and nervous breakdown that led to her being hospitalised, poetry became her “main tool for recovery”. At 49, she won a CLiPPA (a national award for children’s poetry) for her first collection. After years of working as a teacher, she describes being “catapulted into a second career as a children’s writer”; her books were endorsed by everyone from Carol Ann Duffy to David Walliams.

But things began to change when Rooney felt compelled to investigate why so many autistic teenagers were identifying as the opposite sex. “I was once a gender non-conforming autistic child,” she tells me. “I know how it is to be uncomfortable in your own skin, to hate what society tells you it is to be female. It felt strange to realise that my growing reservations around the simplistic idea that children can be ‘born in the wrong body’ would be seen as being bigoted and hateful. I had always been progressive, even ‘woke’.”

Rooney, undeterred by the hostility she knew might follow, started to gently question whether our understanding of gender identity has become warped — only to find herself unfriended and blocked by a number of children’s authors. Many, she explains, did “get in touch privately and admitted to being too scared to speak out — others said they had been warned off from engaging with the topic”.

But Rooney was determined not to be intimidated. So rather than back down, she decided to write a book to “counter the explosion in titles which told children they might be trapped in the wrong body if they don’t conform to stereotypes”. Through 2018 she worked on what was to become My Body is Me! with the illustrator Jessica Ahlberg. Published a year later by Transgender Trend, a well-established group of parents and professionals “who are concerned about the current trend to diagnose children as transgender”, it challenges sexist stereotypes and promotes a positive self-image.

“It’s a proudly inclusive book,” she says. “We talked in depth about the celebratory message we wanted to get across: we aimed to show a diverse range of personalities, body types and family set-ups.”

Of course, Rooney suspected she would face a backlash — but nothing could prepare her for what happened next. Ahlberg, whose parents Janet and Allan Ahlberg wrote and illustrated a number of best-selling children’s books including The Jolly Postman and Peepo, was for the most part ignored. Rooney, however, continues to be monstered and hounded more than two years later.

She explains that “a core of around a dozen authors, librarians, book bloggers and illustrators” — some of whom have allegedly been encouraged by “committee members in the Society of Authors (SoA)” — have repeatedly “smeared” her online in “an attempt to drum her out of publishing”. She recalls: “Fellow authors discussed my ‘hateful world view’, my ‘transphobia’, my bigoted, exclusionary nature and even my autism.”

Take Clara Vulliamy, creator of the Dotty Detective series and daughter of the acclaimed children’s author Shirley Hughes, described Rooney as representing “an extreme ideology that explicitly targets children”. Vulliamy even went so far as to compare Rooney to Tommy Robinson.

“In her post,” Rooney explains, “Vulliamy tagged an agency that employed me to do school visits, warning them about my views and saying ‘ideologically driven school visits could see us all in deep water’. I don’t think she’d even read My Body is Me and thankfully I had a good reputation at the schools I worked in, so kept that work. Ultimately, all I did was speak out on issues around education, literature, child development, safeguarding and more specifically, the female, autistic perspective. I did so because I care.”

There is, however, only so much vitriol a person can endure. And soon Rooney started to struggle with bouts of debilitating anxiety. “It was exhausting. The thought of socialising with people in publishing made me feel physically sick. Poetry was not only my livelihood; it was how I stayed sane. But after the abuse from others in my profession I began to associate it with trauma.”

Then, towards the end of last year, Rooney received an urgent call from her agent to inform her that the publisher of her children’s books was unhappy with her outspoken questioning of gender identity. “I was told that my stance could be considered offensive and that people had been complaining. Two independent bookshops had refused to stock my latest picture book, The Problem with Problems, even though it was entirely unrelated to gender ideology.

“I was told I needed to stop tweeting about the risks to children from gender identity ideology and to remove posts on social media. But I was never offensive, I just told the truth as I see it.” When she refused to be silenced, Rooney was told that her Twitter account would not be copied into any online publicity “in case it sent traffic my way where people might learn of my ‘offensive’ views.”

Soon the campaign to vilify Rooney ratcheted up. Save the Children were bullied by activists into taking down from social media a charity video of Gillian Anderson reading The Problem with Problems. Waterstones was targeted after it posted a video of Tom Hardy reading the same book, though didn’t back down.

But the harassment against gender-critical authors hasn’t stopped. Last week, author Jay Hulme, who identifies as transgender, posted a tweet accusing an unnamed author who “hates that I’m trans and write for kids” of preventing the publication of one of his books. Hulme was supported by Vulliamy, who added: “People within children’s publishing, you KNOW who Jay is talking about.” Rooney wasn’t named, but is confident she was the subject of these posts.

I contacted several of those making accusations against the “unnamed author”. The only person who responded was Hulme, who told me: “I didn’t name the author for a reason — because I don’t believe in pile ons or digital attacks, and so I cannot and will not confirm any names or comment further. Had I wished to expand, I would have done already.”

The SoA also appeared to close ranks. Rather than responding to my enquiry, a press officer directed me to a link to a statement from August which outlined the SoA’s stance on inclusivity. Remarkably, their policy states that SoA will ensure “individuals are supported and able to speak out”.

No doubt Rooney would beg to differ. The repeated smears, sly insinuations and cowardice of the professional bodies have all taken their toll, not least on how her work is received. “People often talk of cancel culture. But there is a more insidious technique at play — one that’s harder to prove but palpable to the receiver; that of ‘Ghosting Culture’. It’s when your book is left off reading lists; when it doesn’t get reviewed; when you are not invited on a panel to discuss it. It’s where organisations you’ve worked with and even long-time friends suddenly avoid sharing publicity about it.”

And yet despite everything — the abuse, the betrayal, the attempts to silence her — Rooney says she has no regrets. She has one more book due in 2022, The Fears you Fear, but it will be her last.

“I can’t work in an industry that purports to care for children yet polices and punishes those who raise safeguarding concerns,” she says. “Regardless of what anyone believes, we should always be free to talk about what’s in the best interests of children.”

However, given her venomous treatment, and that of her fellow authors, it seems unlikely she will be the last victim of the publishing purges. Her story, of overcoming barriers and reaching success in middle-age, is surely impressive; it ought to serve as an inspiration to aspiring writers. But thanks to the stunted vision of those who hold sway in children’s writing, the moral of Rooney’s tale is entirely different: “publish and be damned”.