Story hour, long a mommy-and-me staple, had never looked so colorful.
She stood well over six feet tall, the reader at the Hudson Park branch of the New York Public Library in Greenwich Village, her height aided by six-inch heels on purple patent leather boots. Her outfit was an oxymoronic neon camouflage bodysuit and a purple tutu. A tuft of fuchsia hair curled from under a spandex headdress with fabric-covered cylinders lined up in a row, like a Keith Haring-inspired Mohawk.
As she entered, the adults clapped politely, but the preschool- and kindergarten-age children huddled on a rug went wild. With the elation typically reserved for a “Frozen” character, one toddler screamed “Yay!” and clapped furiously, squirming in his mother’s lap.
“My name is Harmonica Sunbeam,” the reader said, in a voice used to loud rooms. As a warm-up, she had the children sing “This Land Is Your Land” and then march vigorously in place. “I’m getting you ready for Zumba,” she said to laughter from the over-6 set.
She sat down and read aloud from “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress” by Christine Baldacchino. The book is about a boy who wore a beloved dress to school every day. At one point, Morris’s friends inform him that he isn’t allowed to play on their imaginary spaceship, because “astronauts can’t wear dresses.”
“Yes, they can!” one child cried out.
“No, they can’t,” said another.
“Boys can’t wear dresses,” a third added.
The debate continued as Harmonica Sunbeam listened. Then she leaned down, addressing the children in a conspiratorial stage whisper.
“Has anyone ever said anything mean to you?” she asked. The children responded with yeses and nos. “Sometimes it happens.”
This is Drag Queen Story Hour. The brainchild of the writer Michelle Tea and Radar Productions, it is exactly what it sounds like: drag queens reading stories to children. It began in San Francisco in December 2015 and spread to Brooklyn last summer, thanks to social media attention.
“I saw a Facebook post about it,” said Rachel Aimee, the Drag Queen Story Hour coordinator for New York, “and as soon as I saw it, I said, ‘Oh, this is what I’ve been waiting for.’” (Ms. Aimee, who doesn’t get paid for her work, plans on incorporating the program as a nonprofit.) She held the first reading at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn last August and caught the eye of Kat Savage, the children’s librarian at the Park Slope branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. Subsequent library events were a huge success, bringing in hundreds of patrons and the news media. That, in turn, caught the attention of Hudson Park’s children’s librarian, Stevie Feliciano.
Later this spring and summer, the Drag Queen Story Hour will expand to Harlem and Inwood in Manhattan and to the Bronx.
“At first we identified branches that we thought would be excited by it,” said Eva Shapiro, the early literacy coordinator for the New York Public Library. “We didn’t want any surprises. Some neighborhoods are less familiar with the concept. But so far everyone has been thrilled.”
Ms. Aimee agreed, adding, “As long as you don’t read the comments by trolls on the website.”
To the program organizers, children and drag queens are an obvious pairing.
“Children love dressing up and being imaginative in what they wear,” Ms. Aimee said. “They see drag queens as people who are doing the same thing, expressing themselves creatively and having fun with it. Also, kids have a much more fluid understanding of gender than most adults do.”
She quoted one of the young attendants as saying, “Drag queens make story time funner.”
Alisa Soriano, a kindergarten teacher at the Little Red School House in Manhattan who attended the session with Harmonica Sunbeam, said: “We teach a lot of inclusive books, as well as classics. We talk about, ‘What do you do when you see someone who’s different?’”
After reading a few more books from the library’s preapproved list — some, like “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress” or “It’s Okay to be Different” by Todd Parr, address themes of diversity and gender expression, while others are simply story time favorites — Ms. Sunbeam distributed scarves and asked the children to shout out their favorite ice cream flavors, an exercise that inspired a more contentious debate than that over the astronaut’s dress. Then they broke for a paper crown decorating session.
It had been her first story hour session, and afterward Harmonica Sunbeam sat down, visibly perspiring. As is the case with all readers, library staff members taught Ms. Sunbeam how to engage the children, with questions (“Who likes rainbows?”) and to manage crowds of often restless youngsters. However, the differences between a rowdy drag show audience and a group of kindergartners are not as pronounced as one might imagine.
“Little kids can be crazy,” Ms. Shapiro said. “We like to joke that they’re kind of like drunk adults.”
When asked to pinpoint the main difference between story hour and an evening drag show, Ms. Sunbeam said jokingly, “I’m sober.”
She gestured to her headdress. “One of the girls said, ‘You kind of look like a rooster,’” she said with a laugh, “A boy asked me what superhero I was.” To that question, she gave her standard answer: Wonder Woman.
“We all learn every day in life,” she said, as the last of the children filed out the door. “And there’s a lesson in everything you do. Sometimes we just have to sneak it in.”