- Enrique Limón
It's a Saturday morning, and the children's section at The King's English Bookshop is packed to the gills with eager young readers, hungry for a story or two. Sporting a white suit and a shiny gold crown, Rob Eckman, the bookstore's marketing manager, offers an introductory greeting and waxes poetic on the power of make believe. By Eckman's own projection, the day's particular storytime is "strange and unusual." The reason? Its host. "Magnolia Steele is what we call a drag queen," he tells the pint-sized guests. "And a drag queen just means that Magnolia Steele is really a man who is dressed up in girl's clothes—just for fun. Just like I am dressed up today as a king."
Decked in a 1950s hausfrau-inspired getup, complete with a floral-pattern dress, cat-eye glasses, an immaculate pearl necklace and four-inch stilettos "just for kicks," Steele is greeted by a choir of oohs and ahhs.
Propping up a copy of Leo Lionni's A Color of His Own, Steele asks the group of kids if they can guess what the story is about. "Colors!" one responds, while another, influenced by the cover art, goes with lizards. Validating their responses, Steele adds "being an individual. Being yourself. Being who you are ... isn't that cool? I love you for you."
The illustrated book depicts several animals, and goes on to say parrots are green, goldfish are red and elephants are grey but the chameleon has no set color. Longing to fit in, the chameleon nestles itself on top of the brightest leaf he can find and turns vibrant green. Later, when autumn rolls around, he turns yellow and red. Sadly, the slate gets wiped clean come dreary winter.
Extending the cliffhanger-like suspense, Steele asks the kids what would be their personal all-over color of choice. Blue, purple and pink get called out. All the good options claimed, one little redhead shouts "Wainbow!" and the crowd goes wild.
Eventually, our literary hero meets another chameleon, and learns that companionship is more important than owning a particular shade. Together, they travel and turn every shade in the palette, down to red with white polka dots—and, you guessed it, live happily ever after.
- Enrique Limón
A Controversial Chapter
Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) originated in San Francisco in December 2015. Since then, it has grown into a global movement that's taken over libraries and bookstores, and has birthed official chapters everywhere from Atlanta to Tokyo, along with informal pop-ups like the one in SLC.
According to its official website, DQSH "captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive, and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real."
Any good story needs a dose of conflict, and such utopian ideals have been met with villainesque opposition. Earlier this year in Ottawa, one man crashed an event and started spewing mangled Bible verses. During his speech's crescendo, the man let attendees know they would be "cast into a lake of fire." In Houston, the local story hour chapter disintegrated this spring after a wave of Texas-sized outrage that included death threats, protesters attending readings with concealed weapons and news of a former drag reader being a convicted sex offender. The isolated incident was enough to ignite generalized ire from the Mississippi-based American Family Association, which in a news release warned against the "agenda-driven" nature of drag storybook hours. In a blog post on AFA's site, the organization's message was clear: "Homosexuality is unhealthy, immoral and sinful ... This is what books should be saying to kids: If you have such attractions/confusion, you were not born this way and you can change."
A continent away and on a completely different page, this month, the Swedish government pledged the equivalent of $175,000 to fund drag queen story hour shows for children and those with disabilities.
In response to stateside pushback, the American Library Association released a collection of resources, recognizing the events' alignment with their mission of "creating a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society. This includes a commitment to combating marginalization and underrepresentation within the communities served by libraries through increased understanding of the effects of historical exclusion."
Keeping with that spirit, King's English manager Anne Holman was excited to host the shop's first-ever Drag Queen Storytime. "Bookstores all over the country are doing it; we're actually a little bit late to the game," Holman told City Weekly after the reading. "Rob goes to church with Magnolia, and he approached me and said, 'Hey, I think we have a drag queen who would like to do this,' and we said, 'It's about time.'"
- Enrique Limón
The Moral of the Story
Along with sincere reactions from the kids ("I love you and I love princesses," one attendee told hostess Steele), Holman was impressed by the crowd's overall makeup. "This is fantastic, because we have a lot of regulars—we have people who come every Saturday, we've watched their kids grow up in the bookstore—so there are for sure some of those people here, and tons of new faces," she beamed.
Megan McKinnon brought her two nieces along, ages "almost 3 and almost 5." McKinnon said she and her sister, Ryane, are fans of drag shows across town. "We just thought it'd be a really cool experience to introduce the kids in our lives early to stuff that would help them see everybody as equal," she said. "So that if they are around it later or they have a friend [who] comes out or whatever, it's not going to be a weird thing. It's going to be completely normal, and they're going to be accepting and loving."
Following the reading, Eckman praised the crowd. "It was really sweet to see the reaction of the kids," he said. "We have literary costume characters, like the Very Hungry Caterpillar or Otis the Tractor or the Wild Things come through, and the kids were terrified of those costumes. We have a drag queen in here, and you saw the kids lining up to hug her."
Holman hopes to turn Storytime into a regular monthly event.
The day's reading wasn't the first time a drag queen-led story hour happened in Salt Lake City. Earlier in the summer, the Sugar House Barnes & Noble quietly hosted a children's event to coincide with Pride month. Local entertainer London Skies was one of the readers.
"Kids only learn what you teach them," Skies says of the experience. "I just think that all the adults project their fears about the LGBTQIA+ community to the kids, and that's really what creates all the hate. But kids don't care; they loved it."
As with Steele, the 20 or so tykes at that event marveled at the makeup and finery, and treated Skies and her co-host Eva Chanel Stephens like storybook royalty. "It was a lot of fun. The kids really liked it, and then we all got to color together after," Skies says.
Echoing cool aunt McKinnon, Skies says the biggest takeaway from Drag Queen Story Hour, and initiatives like it, is instilling tolerance at a young age. "Them being exposed to [story hours] creates less of a fear, because they know about it," she says.
- Enrique Limón
Woman of Steele
Done with reading and still engaging with her newly acquired fans, Magnolia Steele (real name Topher Steele), recalls the moment she came to Eckman with the idea of staging Drag Queen Storytime at King's English. "We both cried. Because it was exactly what he wanted, it was exactly what I wanted," she says.
"It was so amazing," the Cupertino, Calif., native continues, sitting on one of the bookstore's kiddie chairs. "To see the kids' eyes, I get emotional, because they're learning. They're actually seeing things," she says, still in her fairytale princess register.
Defining it as a "big moment," Steele, who grew up Mormon, gets emotional recounting how kids came up to her asking for hugs. "It was amazing to feel the love from each one as they came up and hugged me," the performer says, her mascara starting to falter.
While she notes that coming of age LDS in the Bay Area had some not-so-stringent perks versus what she's seen since moving to Utah, Steele can't help but wonder how her own experience could've been different if storytimes like this existed back in the day.
"Night and day. It would have really opened up the possibilities of having a different world," she muses. "It doesn't matter what color or nationality you are, we're all just one family—and we need to take care of each other."