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Madison library brings drag queen, children together for storytime

Bridgit Bowden

Wisconsin Public Radio

As Madison celebrated pride week earlier this month, children at the city's Pinney Library branch had a new storytime reader — drag queen Miss Gretta.

This is Drag Queen Storytime, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a drag queen reading books to kids. It's a library trend that started in San Francisco, and been replicated by libraries in New York City, Los Angeles and now Madison.

Miss Gretta is tall, and on a recent Saturday she wore a leather skirt and sequined top, along with bright blue lipstick and eyeshadow. 

Five-year-old Ceci Myers wore a hand-made sparkly crown and face paint to the event. She had never seen a drag queen before meeting Miss Gretta, and she was impressed.  

"She had some beautiful makeup," Ceci said. "Beautiful hair. Some very stylish eyes. And she was very nice."  

Miss Gretta read "The Family Book" by Todd Parr, a picture book that describes how families can be different. After the reading, the kids and their family members sang and danced to a song called "Smile at Your Neighbor." 

Danny Atwater is a library assistant in Madison. He first learned about drag queen storytimes from another library’s Facebook post. Although drag shows are usually geared toward adults, they make sense for kids too, he said. 

"What they do is what kids do." he said. "Kids want to dress up, they want to have a fantasy in their head about who they are for that moment, and that's all drag queens are doing."

The Drag Queen Storytime on this Saturday was the second the library has hosted. The first was earlier this summer.  

Craig Schlagel plays Miss Gretta. Normally, he performs for adult audiences. In addition to wearing clothes that cover more skin, he said he presents a nicer version of his regular drag persona to the kids. 

"You kind of get a little more crass and mean with audiences of an older crowd because they're interested by it and they think it's funny." Schlagel said. "With children, you just interact with them like they're normal people."

But, a lot of kids are hesitant when they meet their first drag queen, he said. 

"It's kind of like children interacting with clowns," he said. "You never know what's gonna go on because it's like a person in a costume, but they aren't exactly sure how to interact with them."

But after they've read their book and had their sing-along, the kids warmed up to Miss Gretta. They lined up to say hello and take pictures with her. 

The event does not include a formal definition of what a drag queen is. Youth services librarian Holly Storck-Post said that was a choice they made to try and normalize different gender expressions.

"I think that a lot of the kids who were in attendance had no idea what a drag queen was, maybe didn't even know that this was a drag queen story time." she said. "They just knew that this was a special, fun storytime at the library."

Some of the kids do notice that something about Miss Gretta is different. 

"These children will come up to you like 'Oh, hi, are you a boy or a girl?'" Schlagel  said. He tries to answer them simply and honestly, explaining he's a boy but he dresses as a girl to entertain people. 

"Saying that to a child is so much easier than interacting with an adult who has more of a closed mind," he said. 

Beth Myers brought her two kids, including 5-year-old Ceci, to storytime so that they could learn about something new.

"I think they come away just knowing that, like the song said, everyone looks different but everybody is still worth love."

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