A room full of wide-eyed children sit criss-cross on the floor, eyes trained upward, hanging on every word of a storybook read aloud at the Hosmer Library.
The reader flicks her perfectly curled hair out of her eyes and she leans in to continue the tale. It’s as if they are meeting a real-life Disney princess.
Just then, her voice dips and one boy takes to his knees to get a closer look at the person reading to the group. She doesn’t notice and continues to read as the tale turns funny and the group of 90 children and adults giggle.
It’s storytime at the library. But today’s storyteller is more performer than reader.
Welcome to Stories Together with Drag Performers, a program put on by Hennepin County Libraries during LGBTQ History month in October. It partners with drag performers from the Twin Cities community to lead storytimes that focus on self-love, acceptance and individuality. The program began in 2018. Since then, hundreds of children have attended the events. This year’s 15 performances extended into November.
Christy Mulligan, the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for Hennepin County Libraries, said the events are a “great celebration of being who you are [and] loving who you are.”
Hennepin County followed San Francisco Public Libraries which launched its Drag Queen Story Hour in 2015.
Mulligan says that the Hennepin County Libraries picked up on the idea right away as a good fit for the Twin Cities community. The Pride Work Group of the library organized the events in 2018, and after a positive reception expanded to 15 locations in 2019.
Ashley Bieber, youth services librarian at Hosmer Library and member of the Pride Work Group, said the group organizes other programming throughout the month of October, including book clubs and a movie series around LGBTQ themes and artists. They also provide training on how to choose content and facilitate interactions for the drag performers scheduled for storytimes.
At Hosmer Library in the Powderhorn community of Minneapolis, Mistress Ginger performed “Friend Like Me” from Disney’s “Aladdin” to open the storytime.
A performance like this one would not have been possible for Ginger to see growing up. Ginger, who asked to remain in character while interviewed, loved her public library growing up in Washington County, Maryland. While she was able to explore interests like Irish folklore and ballet through books, there was little to no LGBTQ representation.
Just a week earlier at Minneapolis’ Central Library another drag performer, Slaymantha Fox, recounted a similar experience.
“I grew up in a very small town… so I didn’t really have any exposure to alternative ... lifestyles or different types of people. So not having that was kind of a struggle for me growing up in a small town and … you know... being a gay man,” Fox said.
Providing this experience is what Ginger said she finds most rewarding about performing at the libraries.
“Having families come up to me afterward, and to say, ‘Oh, my son really loves going to school wearing pretty things, but he gets bullied by other children so he doesn’t wear them… So this was really important for him to see today,’” Ginger said.
“That’s really gratifying to hear that this is actually having an impact on children.”
Stories Together with Drag Performers is not without its detractors.
Mulligan said the libraries have been receiving calls protesting the storytimes.
“There are specific groups that are targeting drag storytimes across the country. So when [the groups] identified that we were offering them, we started seeing complaints come in even a month before any of our events were offered,” she said.
Mulligan said that many of the calls were similar enough to seem like there was a script being used. Other individuals have attended the programs to capture images or produce media pieces that misrepresent the events in order to strengthen the protests, according to Mulligan.
The Child Protection League Action’s Facebook page posted a photo taken at an Oct. 18 storytime it claimed showed a performer flashing the audience. Mulligan said that photo was taken out of context.
“That’s really been hard for our staff and for all of us, because we know it really doesn’t capture the spirit of our programs,” Mulligan said.
Hennepin County Library plans to continue the program next year, she said.
Hennepin County Library’s website offers a complete list of its programs.