Drag queens add sparkle to story time

Drag performer Harmonica Sunbeam kicks off the Epiphany Library’s summer reading series by reading to children and doing crafts with them on Friday. (Photos by Sabina Mollot)

By Sabina Mollot

It wasn’t even noon, but the atmosphere in the room already felt like a party, with at least 20 of the 35 or so young guests donning sparkly boas. The venue was the Epiphany branch of the New York Public Library on East 23rd Street, where kids aged 3-7 and their parents awaited the arrival of a drag queen. The occasion? It was on Friday at 11 a.m. and the library’s summer reading series was being kicked off with “Drag Queen Story Hour.”

Now over a year old, the program is aimed at promoting diversity and gender acceptance, and, as its official website explains, “give kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.”

DQSH was founded in San Francisco by Michelle Tea and Radar Productions but has since branched out to other cities. It first came to New York’s Brooklyn Library and June 15 was the first time for Epiphany, where kids showed up with parents or on a class trip. Most of those in attendance, including boys, opted in for boas, which came in a few colors and were distributed by the library.

Prior to greeting the children, the drag queen doing the reading, Harmonica Sunbeam, told Town & Village she got involved with the program after seeing a Facebook post seeking drag performers to read the kids. This was after the Brooklyn Library hosted an event, which, she recalled, “went viral and there was a demand for more queens.”

Harmonica had already been doing drag for 27 years and these days has a twice-weekly gig hosting and doing comedy at The Royal, a new gay bar in Jersey City, where she lives. On July 7, she’ll be doing her first DQSH at a Starbucks in New Jersey’s Hasbrouck Heights.

The decision to read to children wasn’t a difficult one, though.

“I like kids and I know how to read,” she figured.

Harmonica Sunbeam, normally a nightclub host, has now done too many children’s story hours to count.

After some basic training from the NYPL — mostly going over protocols on interaction with minors, like making sure any conversations with children don’t take place behind a closed door — Harmonica got started and has now done too readings at libraries to count.

The first one, she recalled, was something of a high-pressure situation — she was informed at the last minute it would be covered by the New York Times. Fortunately, the program has been getting overwhelmingly good press. The only negative coverage has more to do with the occasional protests against DQSH. Just two days prior to the Epiphany event, a reading in Anchorage was interrupted by a pastor who barged in to announce that there is no such thing as a transgender person. He then put the footage on social media.

While nothing like this has happened to Harmonica, she has still felt some of the opposition. She recalled being asked to read at a New York library a year ahead of time only to have the librarian cancel at the last minute, explaining there had been backlash.

She said, “I don’t want to choose sides,” said Harmonica. “Well, if you cancel, you are choosing sides.”

Still, she has found that DQSH has done what the program was meant to do, which is spark conversation about LGBT orientations.

“Kids may have questions. Parents may have questions about their kids,” said Harmonica. “I’ll say, ‘You know, this is how I felt at your age.’ I’m not necessarily there to diagnose their child, but it opens up a dialogue.”

Asked about some of the questions she’s gotten — one that stands out is when a child asked what superhero she was.

“I was wearing something similar to this,” said Harmonica, who, at Epiphany, was decked out in a catsuit in brightly colored, reflective material with protruding shoulders as well as a mohawk-like head covering, patent leather purple platform boots, a purple mini skirt and matching lips and eyebrows.

Prior to the story reading, DQSH’s founder’s Jonathan Hamilt introduced Harmonica, informing the audience that drag queens are “characters you make up that highlight your feminine side or any side you want to explore.”

Then Harmonica — arriving to explosive cheers — read four picture books, including one from the popular Pete the Cat series and then a story called Love the World that encouraged concern for the environment as well as body positivity. Harmonica also led the group in song at a few points, including “The Wheels on the Bus” and “This Land is Your Land.” The latter song was a request from a guest with Harmonica responding, “I’ll see if I can remember it.”

Asked about her towering hood ornament, she told another child, “It’s a bad hair day for me so I put it up.”

Then there was more singing and a bit of marching in place while pretending to be in a desert, in a jungle and at Walmart. The event concluded after about an hour with Harmonica supervising some paper fan making and decorating.

“Because it’s summer time and we all want to look fancy.”

When interviewed earlier, Harmonica had said while she incorporates humor into his readings that’s geared to the adults, it’s the younger ones she’s found to be an easier audience. At least more so than club goers she’s used to.

“The biggest difference,” said Harmonica, “is that children don’t have cell phones. It’s a harder sell in a nightclub, because there’s alcohol and because people can easily gravitate towards their phones. Kids are a more captive audience. As long as you engage them, you have their attention.”

The story hours, she’s learned, have also helped draw in bigger audiences to libraries, and at Epiphany, the senior children’s librarian, Robyn Shadtlender, said she put in a request to hold the program as soon as she heard about it. She’s also hoping to have the program return in the fall.

Parents at the library, upon hearing this, indicated they’d be back.

Flatiron resident Neeti Reddy, there with her three-year-old daughter Raksha, called Harmonica and her costume “super impressive. That the kids can also participate in a project also made it more fun.”

Midtown resident Leslie Gucman agreed. “I like how everyone participated,” she said, adding that Harmonica “knew how to make everybody a part of it.”

Stephanie Brennan, who was visiting the city with her husband, toddler and baby, was also impressed.

“I’m from Jamaica, so for a country that needs more acceptance, I think it was terrific,” she said.

More information about DQSH, including upcoming events, can be found on the website.

Correction: This article has been changed from the print version to reflect that drag performers, while in drag, are generally referred to by the pronoun of their character.

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