When Angel Elektra entered a Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library last Thursday, the clamor of children faded. Dozens of little faces swiveled around to watch the 6-foot-tall drag queen clad in teal and black lace glide through the space. Everyone could see Elektra’s thrilled expression from across the room: After all, it was painted on her face.
As she sauntered toward her perch, she waved to the attentive crowd. She then took a seat on a chair made for someone perhaps half her height and began to read from “The Drag Queen Story Hour” coloring book.
“What is a drag queen?” Elektra asked, reading from page two.
“A performer!” yelled a boy from the audience.
“A dragon?” asked another.
“No, not a dragon,” Elektra replied.
“Between a dragon and a person,” another kid shouted.
Elektra paused. “That works,” she deadpanned.
She went on to explain to the children that drag queens are boys who like to dress up as girls and perform, and that drag kings are girls who like to dress up as boys and perform. The children nodded.
Elektra swept her heavy, plum-colored wig to the side and dabbed some sweat off of her brow. A mom in the audience stood up and began to fan the performer with a large children’s book.
After reading a few passages from the coloring book, Elektra moved on to “Julián Is a Mermaid,” a story about a boy from New York whose abuela (grandmother) helps him prepare a costume for the annual New York City Mermaid Parade in Coney Island.
After story hour concluded, Elektra held a baby aloft and led the group of eager children around the library in a miniature version of the Mermaid Parade. The event was undoubtedly a memorable kickoff to the library’s summer reading program.
“It’s very, very convincing,” said Elliot, a wide-eyed young reader from Manhattan’s Upper West Side, of Elektra’s costume and accoutrement. He said he had seen a drag queen before in a movie, but up close, it was a whole different experience.
Explaining to kids that drag queens are boys who like to dress like girls and perform is “such a simple concept,” according to Chelsea Condren, an early literature coordinator at the New York Public Library.
“We don’t get too heavy,” she said. “It’s not like we get into Theory 101, but I find that kids take in things so quickly — they’re over it in like five seconds.”
Condren said her first drag queen experience was in college — “kind of a 21+ event,” she laughed — so she helps the queens prepare for their sober, wide-eyed audience at the library.
“We do give them some helpful hints about how to engage a crowd, how to talk to kids, how to sing with kids,” Condren explained. “So they’re not coming in cold, and so they actually have some time to familiarize them with children.”
Angel Elektra, a New York native who started drag four years ago at the annual Fire Island “Invasion of the Pines,” said she has improved her craft over the years.
“It’s a process and a lesson, so you learn as you go,” she explained. “Just like anyone that does drag, you start from the bottom. My makeup was terrible, my outfits were terrible,” she said of those early days.
Elektra has been reading to kids with Drag Queen Story Hour for about a year. “The main key that we try to teach the children is acceptance,” she explained. “My job is to express to them, to help them understand, that it is OK to be different. It’s OK if you’re a boy, and you want to wear a tutu. It’s OK if you’re a girl and you want to wear a cap and fitted jeans, you know.”
Elektra said she and her partner of 19 years just attended the first-ever LGBTQ pride event hosted by their hometown of Yonkers, New York, a town just north of Manhattan. She said she noticed many families were there with kids, showing them what acceptance looks like.
“I wish when I was growing up we had these types of activities, so that way my parents wouldn’t have had to be so secluded and private about acceptance,” she said.
During Elektra’s library performance, Rachel Aimee, a 39-year-old mother and freelance editor stood in the back of the room. Aimee heard about Drag Queen Story Hour three years ago when it debuted in San Francisco and thought at the time, “Oh my God, this is what I have been looking for. I want to take my kids. I want this to be all over the city.”
Aimee said her daughter was 3 years old at the time and began to embrace all things pink and princess-like. As a self-described “feminist,” Aimee said she took issue with her daughter’s gender-conforming preferences.
“There’s kind of this discourse in feminism about how you should encourage your daughters to wear pants and climb trees and have short hair,” she said. “To me that was shaming — shaming girly things, shaming femininity."
But at the same time, Aimee said she wanted to teach her daughter that pink is “not just for girls,” and “boys can be princesses, too.” So one year after Drag Queen Story Hour held its first reading in San Francisco in 2015, Aimee founded the New York chapter of the group.
“I think the idea is to expose kids to different kinds of gender presentations,” Aimee told NBC News, “to see beyond the blue and pink gender binary that kids often grow up learning about.”
Aimee said the first event she organized was at the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and it was packed. A librarian from the Brooklyn Public Library attended that first event and helped Aimee bring Drag Queen Story Hour to the New York Public Library system in the summer of 2016.
Now, just two years later, Drag Queen Story Hour can be found at libraries and bookstores across the U.S. — from Vermont to Oklahoma to Alaska.