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,” says 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,” says 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.”
Reading is fundamental
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. He already has performances lined up at local arts venues and Bristol Pride in the coming months. And, 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 says that it is hard to predict how schools will react to it. “We’ve had Dads and Lads,” he says, referring to the father-and-son reading programme. “Now it’s drag lasses in classes. Both children and reading should benefit from the encounters.
“If it’s good, it will be taken up. It depends almost entirely on the quality of the experience for children in the first wave. Heads and governors will be emboldened if they hear good things from their trusted peers.”
Connell says that he would like to see a training programme in place for volunteers.
One head at a Bristol primary says she would prefer to see the scheme in action before deciding whether it would be appropriate for her school. “Why would it be drag queens?” the head, who chose to remain anonymous, asks. “My son is friends with a lot of drag queens, and I’m not sure their acts would be appropriate. We’d have to make sure it’s suitable.”
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,” says Canham. “They’re not constrained by gender norms. I think it’s important to find strong female characters that girls can identify with – who think about more than what dress they wear to the prom, and don’t want to marry the first man they come across.”
Aimee agrees. The story hour, she says, is a way to tackle some of the most deeply ingrained social prejudices. “I think that bringing a drag queen to children is a great way to expose kids to the idea that some people are different in the way that they dress and present their gender,” she says.
“Traditionally, queer people – especially queer people who don’t present their gender in a mainstream way – have been kept away from kids. So I think that we are sending a strong message to children: people who are different are fun to be around.
“They’re not scary and taboo; they’re someone who can come into the classroom and read a book.”
Connell believes that a single memorable storytelling experience can inspire new interest in reading among children. But, he adds, drag readers should remember that the performance – however fabulous – is not the whole point.
“The environment and the atmosphere created around reading are more important than the adult reader,” he says. “Performance is not the most important thing. Comfort, reassurance, familiarity, a sense of delight, personal engagement, questioning and discussion – these will help children become readers and become active, responsible and questioning adults.”