Late morning sunlight gleamed through tall French doors leading out of the brick-walled back room of Scuppernong Books while drag queen Jean Jacket — who declined to share a given name — read Maurice Sendak‘s Where the Wild Things Are to an attentive audience of young children. They sat leaning forward on their mothers’ laps or peered upward from the floor, fixated on each page flip and mostly keeping quiet.
Scuppernong hosts storytime readings for children on Saturdays year-round, but this year the last Saturday of every month turned into something special: Local drag queens like Jean Jacket began to take the lead for a series called the “Queen’s Storytime.” Stonewall Sports — a LGBTQ and ally non-profit sports league — sponsors the readings and helps find queens enthusiastic to participate.
After her third reading last weekend, Jean Jacket said in an interview that what she enjoys most is seeing the joy on the kids’ faces.
“There’s one little boy who came running in the door yelling my name, excited to see me today,” Jean Jacket said. “It’s fun to see those repeats who remember you and are excited that you’re the one reading.”
That 5-year-old boy’s name is Knox Peeples. He said that although he doesn’t like to wear dresses himself, he enjoys seeing Jean Jacket’s outfits each week.
“They don’t understand gender yet, so this way you can introduce them to that culture a lot earlier before society tries to teach them norms,” Jean Jacket said.
Saturday’s reading fell at the end of the bookstore’s participation in national Banned Books Week, which brings awareness to censorship past and present and emphasizes the right to free expression, and Wild Things was a purposefully subversive choice. Sendak’s 1963 picture book faced widespread censorship in the South for its representations of the supernatural after its publishing and some critics still argue that it’s too emotionally mature and frightening for young children given its illustrations of moonlit monsters and psychodramatic depictions of anger and helplessness.
Like Sendak, though, the parents who bring their young ones to the Queen’s Storytime don’t underestimate what their children are capable of processing. Some parents said they were attracted to the event specifically because it presents an opportunity to foster their children’s psychological and social development.
“We can start a good conversation in the house about how different people are and how different people express themselves, which is part of why he was so excited this time,” said Shannon Peeples, Knox’s mother. “He started to process it more when last time he was a little bit shy. He’s learning it’s okay to be who you are and we all decide to show up in different ways… and it’s not a right or wrong way.”
Few of the dozen or so children who stayed after the reading exhibited much shyness as they joined Jean Jacket at the craft table to construct Wild Things-inspired masks with paper plates. The young mask-makers found eight-packs of Crayola crayons, large markers and pre-cut, construction-paper bunny ears scattered around a mountain of pink, green and purple pipe-cleaners that many used to fasten their final creations to their heads. Hordes of black, blue and red googly eyes stared vacantly from the tabletop until they brought masks — often already covered indiscriminately with craft pom-poms — to life.
Jean Jacket drew eyeliner and thick eyelashes around a large set of googly eyes on a plate she sliced clean in half and affixed to her headband with highlighter yellow pipe-cleaners before moving around the table to praise and help children individually.
“I made it kind of creepy because it doesn’t have any ears,” Knox said of his mask.
Instead, Knox’s menacing yet adorable creation featured a gaping red and black asymmetrical mouth and beady eyes below angry eyebrows. A colorful array of pipe-cleaners representing hair stood at attention up top, lending some lightheartedness to his handiwork.
Stephanie Hawkins, 34, said the Queen’s Storytime also appeals to parents trying to get out of the house with their kids for an enriching activity they can all appreciate.
“It’s sort of a no-judgement zone and a good Saturday morning,” said Hawkins, whose daughter is nearly 3 years old. “Good coffee, good story, good craft. And it’s unique; there’s no other opportunity like it.”
While Scuppernong is the first bookstore in the Triad to host one, drag-queen story hours originated as a phenomenon in San Francisco two years ago. Queens regularly read to children in libraries, classrooms and bookstores in large coastal cities like Los Angeles and New York City, all in the name of cultivating imagination and familiarizing children with healthy, fluid expressions of gender and sexuality, driving home the point that gender identities are constructed and that their parents support their agency to express themselves.
“I think the more we’re around everybody from all different walks of life we realize we’re not all that different,” Peeples said. “At the end of the day we want to read with our kids, make crafts with our kids, want to be able to sit in an environment that’s safe and inclusive and welcoming. I think the more we have the opportunity to see those perspectives, we can start to erase those walls.”