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Far from a Drag: How One Library Embraced Drag Queen Story Hour

Author photo: Chelsea CondrenChelsea Condren is an Early Literacy Coordinator for the New York Public Library. She received her master’s degree in library and information science in 2014 from the University of Denver, where she was also an Early Childhood Fellow.

Children’s librarians and drag queens have more in common than our shared love of glitter.

When Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) approached the Early Literacy Department at the New York Public Library (NYPL) to ask us about facilitating their programs in our branches, we were eager to get started. Conceived of by Michelle Tea and Radar Productions in San Francisco, DQSH now operates out of Los Angeles, New York, and New Jersey, inspires events around the world, and can be found at DragQueenStoryHour.org.

Drag Queen Harmonica Sunbeam reads to pre-K students at Hudson Park Library in New York.

Drag Queen Harmonica Sunbeam reads to pre-K students at Hudson Park Library in New York.

The concept is simple—drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, camps, and other educational settings. Their goal, listed on the website’s home page, is even simpler—to “give kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models.”

After the NYPL Early Literacy Department met with the New York DQSH representatives, we decided to launch the program in twelve branches around Manhattan and the Bronx, basing the decision primarily on branch library staff we knew would support the program and encourage families to attend.

We were provided a stipend for each event to fund supplies, pay the performer, and support the DQSH organization overall from support provided by the private donors who partially fund the Early Literacy Department. There was no additional cost to NYPL to host these events.

Once we reached out to branch staff to schedule the events, the Early Literacy Department hosted a Story Time 101 workshop for all the participating drag queens. This was wildly successful and fun, and it was one of the most important steps in our process.

While the drag queens have experience performing and working with crowds, they welcomed the opportunity to learn best practices for storytimes and read alouds, as well as to practice with the children’s books we provided. We also provided guidelines with quick tips on program length, handling disruptions, choosing popular songs to sing, and the importance of taking wiggle breaks!

We created a book list for suggested age-appropriate titles (babies and toddlers, pre-K and up) and categories. We included in this list story-time favorites—such as Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Sandra Boynton’s Moo, Baa, La, La La—so our performers had titles they knew were likely to generate positive engagement.

We also included titles with diverse families and gender expression, such as Gayle Pittman’s This Day in June and J. J. Austrian’s Worm Loves Worm. Most programs included a mix of both kinds of books, and, of course, many of them transcended categories. These resources were helpful for both branch staff and performers, enabling them to pull titles in advance.

Because of the potentially sensitive nature of this program, the early literacy team provided our email addresses as a point of contact should any patrons have comments, questions, or concerns—but frankly, we received none. We were told by branch staff that a few patrons verbally expressed that they would not be attending, and our social media pages contained a few negative comments, but there was otherwise little pushback.

In addition to implementing a program that would joyfully engage families and children, and providing our staff with appropriate resources, our priority was that the DQSH performers felt safe and welcome in our communities.

DQSH has their own marketing, as does the NYPL. We joined forces to create a branch flier, and branch staff often chose to schedule their program around a regular weekly storytime to ensure families would be available. Because this program generates national attention, representatives from BuzzFeed Video and the New York Times attended programs, so we had photo-release forms for parents in case their children were photographed.

Ultimately, we have been thrilled by the reception this program has received. “The ultimate goal is for this to be normal and not feel different,” parent Hayley Brewer told BuzzFeed Video about drag queen Harmonica Sunbeam’s visit to the Washington Heights Library.

Children’s Librarian Jessica Espejel noted, “As a children’s librarian, you are always worried whether your community will be receptive . . . our parents were very gung-ho and excited! We even had a parent come up to us and say, ‘I am so excited to bring my child to this. This is something I wouldn’t be able to experience in my native country [of Poland].’”

If you are in one of the cities where the DQSH team operates, the program is strongly recommended. If you are not in one of these areas, you can still do a similar program. DQSH’s website provides contact information for those who are inspired by these events and want to reach out to their local LGBTQ community to offer similar programming in schools, summer camps, and, of course, public libraries.

Here’s to freedom of expression and paper crowns for all! &

For more information on the DQSH, visit www.dragqueenstoryhour.org.

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