Exclusive: Why drag queens want to read to primary pupils

23rd June 2017 at 11:01
Drag-queen storytellers are hoping to go into Bristol primary schools to add some sparkle to lessons – and overcome a few ingrained social prejudices to boot.

As every child knows, queens play a well-established role in story books. Sometimes they are glamorous. Sometimes they are passive. Occasionally, they are evil.

A new reading scheme, however, is changing this role. Instead of queens appearing in story books, they will be reading from them.

Specifically, drag queens – complete with glittery eyeshadow, bouffant wigs and sequins – are visiting school classrooms to conduct one-off reading sessions with pupils. Drag Queen Story Hour, a scheme gathering momentum in the US, is now coming to Britain in a flurry of feather boas and false eyelashes.

The idea is simple: a drag queen, in full costume, goes into a primary school and reads a book to key stage 1 children.

“Kids love dressing up and being creative,” said Rachel Aimee, who runs New York City’s Drag Queen Story Hour. “And so do drag queens. So drag queens are the perfect kids’ entertainers, really. The kids see them as characters from a book.”

How the drag queens dress for storytime depends very much on their own personal style. Some turn up in (glittery) twinset and pearls; others opt for a full ballgown. One drag queen wears a silver-sequinned top, decorated with multiple rainbows.

“We teach kids that it’s OK to be different,” said Aimee. “It’s OK to express yourself how you want, regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl. But, for the younger kids, it’s just fun to see someone so fabulous.”

Thomas Canham agrees. The Bristol law student saw a tweet about the New York programme and tweeted a drag-queen friend: “Put your glad rags on and let’s go.”

Since then, he has recruited nearly 30 drag queens to help bring Drag Queen Story Hour to Bristol. From late summer onwards, he will be contacting Bristol schools and asking to bring drag queens to their classrooms. A similar version is also being developed in Birmingham.

Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, welcomes the initiative, but said that it is hard to predict how schools will react to it. “We’ve had Dads and Lads,” he said, referring to the father-and-son reading programme. “Now it’s drag lasses in classes.”

One head at a Bristol primary said she would prefer to see the scheme in action before deciding whether it would be appropriate for her school. “My son is friends with a lot of drag queens, and I’m not sure their acts would be appropriate,” the head who wished to remain anonymous said.

The New York programme provides information for teachers on how to discuss sexuality and gender with pupils. But Canham’s version brings these discussions into the storytelling.

Drag queens begin by reading from a book they loved when they were children. This is followed by a song with a drag twist. For example, The Wheels on the Bus might include the (tenuously scanned) verse: “The skirt on the drag queen goes: swish, swish, swish.”

After that, the drag queen will read either a feminist fairy tale or a story – such as The Boy Princess – that questions gender norms.

“At that age, all the kids are gender-fluid,” said Canham. “They’re not constrained by gender norms."  

This is an edited article from the 23 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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