Fiona Fierce wore her sparkliest dress to the Riverview library in St. Paul.
“I try to get, as I call it, as princess-y looking as possible,” she said.
With big lavender hair, spiraled silver sequins and a mermaid fit-and-flare skirt, she was ready to read.
Fierce, 24, is one of six drag performers to participate in the St. Paul Public Library’s Drag Story Hour program, which invites them to public libraries around St. Paul to read a book of their choosing, followed by a musical performance.
Riverview is the second St. Paul library to host the program. The first was held in early June at Rondo Community Library, while the third will be at George Latimer Central on Wednesday. The events, which celebrate Pride, are open to all ages and meant to be family-friendly fun centered around inclusivity and self-expression.
Fierce was joined by Blaze Bordeaux, 31, who wore a deep blue suit with turquoise rhinestones and a sparkly bow tie, topped with a gold king crown. As they read, children gathered at their feet — some wearing crowns, some holding inflatable microphones, some donning pins that read “We Belong Together.”
“They are the most accepting people ever,” Fierce said. “They just are there to have fun.”
St. Paul Public Library and Flip Phone, a monthly LGBT dance party, had previously collaborated on readings at the 2017 Twin Cities Pride Festival. After receiving positive responses from parents, the libraries wanted to make the readings a regular occurrence. Flip Phone was eager to continue to be involved in programming for kids.
“A drag storyteller isn’t different from an everyday storyteller,” said Chad Kampe, 36, founder of Flip Phone. “They are just dressed a little bit differently.”
At Riverview, Anna Smithberger, 28, the library’s children’s specialist, had expected a smaller turnout, but was surprised to see more than 100 families sitting on the checkered carpet, lining the walls and spilling out of the room where the reading was held.
Drag Story Hour, also known as Drag Queen Story Hour, started in San Francisco in 2015 and has hopscotched across the country. Story hours are now held regularly in New York, Chicago and Juneau, Alaska. The books read at the events are on the themes of self-expression, self-acceptance and compassion.
“Stories are inherent to everything we do,” Kampe said. “Having kids be introduced to stories about identity and be who they are is the first step of them realizing that they can be who they want to be and feel accepted.”
At the Riverview readings, Fierce read Todd Parr’s “Be Who You Are” to promote self-expression. Bordeaux chose “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers for the book’s message of acceptance and its inclusion of an African-American female protagonist.
Too provocative for kids?
While some praise the program, others criticize it as too provocative for young children.
After the St. Paul Public Library announced the reading series on Facebook and Twitter, it quickly received replies, with some on Twitter calling performers “pedo” and saying the program sexualized small children.
“There’s an adult sphere and there’s a sphere for children,” said Kim Crockett, vice president of the think tank Center for the American Experiment. “It is very clear to me that the St. Paul Library has forgotten that.”
While there have been drag story hours at places such as Wild Rumpus bookstore in Minneapolis, the St. Paul program is the first to be hosted at a public space.
Smithberger argues that a library, as a public space open to all, is an appropriate place for the event.
When it’s been held in St. Paul libraries, the story hour is held in a separate room, where visitors can choose whether to participate. And the stereotypes associated with drag — that it’s hypersexualized — are sidelined at Drag Story Hour. The glitz and glamorous clothes may stay, but the environment is expressive, not explicit.
“These story hours are new, and for some people, new is hard,” Fierce said. “If they don’t like it, they don’t like it, but that’s their right.”
After their readings at Riverview, Bordeaux and Fierce gave musical performances — Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” and “This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman” — to a crowd of children, who danced and sang along.
“We’re people and we have love and we care for children just as much as anybody,” Bordeaux said. “Drag just happens to be our career choice.”