Since Drag Queen Story Hour first took flight in San Francisco in 2015, chapters across the country and around the world have facilitated lively events where drag queens read aloud to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores. This season brings picture books starring drag queens, a development that lets kids take a little of the sparkle home.
Michelle Tea, who created DQSH, is the author of Tabitha and Magoo Dress Up Too (ages 4–8). Illustrated by Ellis van der Does, the picture book was released in February by Amethyst Editions, the Feminist Press imprint that Tea launched in 2016.
“The thing that continues to shock me as I parent and observe kids is how much gendering of colors, toys, and hobbies persists,” Tea says. “I think every message that counters that is valuable.” In her book, a pair of siblings don each other’s clothes to create superhero capes and a gown. A turquoise-haired drag queen named Morgana sweeps in and encourages their sartorial explorations, offering a gentle lesson in gender—“some children have both boy and girl in their heart”—before whisking them off to a DQSH.
“I think drag queens have been overdue for a starring moment in children’s publishing for a while,” says Jordan Nielsen, associate publisher and editorial director at PowerHouse imprint Pow! Kids, which will publish Auntie Uncle: Drag Queen Hero by Ellie Royce, illustrated by Hannah Chambers, in May.
In Auntie Uncle, narrated by a young relative of the title character, (Auntie) Lotta’s drag persona is juxtaposed with (Uncle) Leo’s accounting job. “Drag performers also have families and day jobs and a regular existence on top of the art that they do,” Nielsen says. “That’s an important thing to reinforce.”
Lil Miss Hot Mess, one of the first drag queens to participate in DQSH and a member of its national advisory committee, wrote The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish (Running Press Kids, May, ages 4–8) partly in response to the many gender-related titles that focus on bullying. “It almost makes it feel like, if you’re queer or different, this is what you have to expect,” she says. “I wanted to write something that had a different message.”
The book is her take on the children’s song “The Wheels on the Bus,” with illustrator Olga de Dios depicting a diverse group of drag queens acting out the lyrics (“The fingers on the drag queen go snap, snap, snap”). Lil Miss Hot Mess says it made sense to adapt a song kids already knew, because parody is “central to drag as an art form.”
At read-alongs, kids can act out the stomping and shimmying. “This is about embodying what drag queens are and what we do, rather than explaining it or putting it in a narrative,” Lil Miss Hot Mess says. Drag is “not just a costume you put on and take off. It’s about finding something in yourself and turning that into reality simply by putting on a pair of heels and a wig and some extra makeup. It’s also about being bold and not doing what’s conventional.”
A video of her performing the song at story hour, which was submitted with the book proposal, helped convince Julie Matysik, editorial director at Running Press Kids, to acquire the title. It’s “a great celebration of independence and uniqueness and owning who you are,” Matysik says, “while giving a soft, fun introduction to drag culture.”
Both Matysik and Nielsen say potential controversy was discussed in-house before signing the books, but ultimately, it wasn’t a deterrent. “The fears of conservative parents don’t dictate what stories we’re going to tell,” Nielsen says, noting that she hopes parents “will allow their kids to explore outside of their comfort zone.”
So while this is Pow!’s first drag-themed book, it needn’t be the last. “Drag has so many different faces,” Nielsen says. “There are drag queens, there are drag kings, there are people who wear lots of makeup, and people who don’t. I’d love to see books that explore more of it.”
DRAG QUEEN STORY HOUR AND THE CORONAVIRUS
In mid-March, as public gatherings became discouraged and later prohibited, DQSH began livestreaming readings on Facebook and Instagram. Lil Miss Hot Mess, author of The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, was among the first to participate.