By day, Jonathan Hamilt is executive director of Drag Story Hour. Also by day—he says he isn’t cut out for the nightlife—he transforms into drag queen Ona Louise, presenting picture books to young audiences. With queer people under threat, DSH has become a resource for progressive activism and a magnet for protest; in March, DSH NYC received the Publishing Triangle’s inaugural Torchbearer Award. Hamilt spoke with PW about drag in the daytime, positive queer role models, and why kids love someone who’s a little extra.

DSH started in 2015. How did you get involved?

I’ve been with Drag Story Hour since 2016. I cofounded the New York City chapter and was the first drag queen to read for the program. Here we are in 2023, and we have about 50 chapters in 45 states and a dozen international chapters.

How does DSH, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, operate its independent local chapters?

A lot of drag performers and organizers do this in their free time, so there’s ebb and flow to people’s availability, but we have a few hundred drag performers around the country. All our performers are compensated, and each chapter is funded through its community. Drag is one of those things people think is kind of easy—like, you just throw it on—but it takes a long time to get ready, and we want to pay queer artists for their time and artistry.

What kinds of programming does DSH offer?

When we work with big companies, partnerships, or special projects, we’ll pull storytellers from chapters around the country and the world. We offer bilingual readings, multilingual readings, Indigenous two-spirit storytellers, and Black voices programming. We have people with expertise in singing or playing instruments. We try to put our artists where they’re needed most, if there’s budget and funding.

When did you start doing drag, and what got you into it?

I’ve been a drag queen since 2013. People associate drag with nightlife and with RuPaul’s Drag Race, obviously. A lot of drag artists don’t want to do story hour; they’re in the clubs doing shows, and that’s a cornerstone of the queer community. But drag is an art form, and it can range and be consumable for different groups of people. I never really did nightlife, and I love working with kids, so story hour is great. Not every person wants to be up that early or be in drag makeup with horrible lighting in the library.

What makes drag and stories a powerful combination?

Books are mirrors and windows to the world, and having a visibly queer, over-the-top reader is a mirror and window to families. The storyteller is just a fabulous person, dressed up a little extra, reading in your regular library. Kids love the drama and sequins, the joy of seeing somebody who isn’t baked into societal norms or gender stereotypes. It’s liberating and creative. You may not feel different, but when you grow up you’ll be a more well-adjusted person who’s going to have compassion.

Kids love the drama and sparkles and sequins, the joy of seeing somebody who isn’t baked into societal norms or gender stereotypes.

What kind of books make great DSH presentations?

We like to stick to picture books. We love a theme—during Pride we’ll read a bunch of Pride-themed books—and we make talking points and lesson plans. We don’t like to focus on books about bullying or introduce a story line where the character is being outed for being different. We love to use gender-neutral language, especially with animals or inanimate objects.

What are some practical ways to support DSH?

Anybody can be in drag and spread literacy, so everyone’s welcome. But the current political landscape does deter people from wanting to put these events on. The important thing to know is the goal of the detractors is to scare us to not assemble. If you’re scared to put on LGBTQ events and don’t do it, they’re winning. Contact our organization to help you plan. Tread lightly in the beginning—like, do a Pride display before you do a full-blown story hour. Take it step-by-step, eyelash by eyelash, just kind of layer that makeup on slowly before you really rock it.

On June 7, Jonathan Hamilt will deliver a keynote, 10–10:45 a.m., and lead karaoke, 5:30–6:30 p.m.

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