The Best Lil Hot Mess in Storytime
How is a drunk adult audience similar to a storytime full of screaming toddlers? I’m sorry, are you telling me that there’s a difference?!? In these topsy turvy Corvid-infused times we are finding so many authors, illustrators, celebrities and (oh yeah) children’s librarians and booksellers taking to their cameras and filming themselves doing storytimes. With everyone in the known universe getting in on the storytime bandwagon, what better time could there be to host my very first interview with a Drag Queen Story Hour powerhouse like Lil Miss Hot Mess?
No doubt you’ve all heard about Drag Queen Story Hour, that gorgeous glamorous endeavor wherein a drag queen gives children all the visual pizzazz and personality their little shiny-lovin’ hearts crave. Now, for the first time, we have a book coming out that is tailor-made not just for drag queens to read but pretty much anyone who wants to own storytime. The Hips on the Drag Queens Go Swish Swish Swish takes the familiar and renders it fabulous. But wherein its origins? I had a talk with the author, Lil Miss Hot Mess, to get the low down and dirty.
Betsy Bird: So first off, a big time thank you for suffering my questions today. Let’s start at the very beginning of it all. As I am given to understand it, you were one of the first queens to ever host a Drag Queen Story Hour. How did you hear about it in the first place?
Lil Miss Hot Mess: My dear friend, talented author, and all-around genius Michelle Tea dreamed up the idea for Drag Queen Story Hour in 2015 as part of her queer literary and arts non-profit Radar Productions based in San Francisco. I had just moved to New York City from San Francisco to start a PhD program, and I was so bummed I was missing out! But not too long after, Feminist Press started hosting DQSH events in New York City. And since Michelle was coming to town to tour her book Black Wave, she asked me if I’d do a reading at the Brooklyn Public Library.
It was beyond fun! I had always liked working with kids—over the years
I’ve had non-drag gigs working at a summer camp, a Hebrew school, and
various arts programs. And one time, my friend Fauxnique organized an
event at the DeYoung Museum in which kids got to help design outfits for
queens. Kids and drag queens just made so much sense together, I couldn’t believe no one had really thought of a way to make this crazy idea work! Of course, I was so thrilled to join drag friends like Persia, Honey Mahogany, Ona Louise, and Pickle in that early DQSH family.
And eventually DQSH became its own project, and we now have more than 50 chapters across the country and world!
BB: I’m coming at this from a children’s librarian perspective. I have done my fair share of storytimes for the little littles. And I know that they are not going to humor you if you bore them. You’ve gotta keep them interested and the number one way you can do that is to alternate the readings with singing. So I’m watching a video of you at the Brooklyn Public Library and I see that back in 2017 you were already singing THE HIPS ON THE DRAG QUEENS GO SWISH SWISH SWISH. So, basically, you’ve known how to connect to small children for a long time. Were you incorporating music into your storytimes from the start or did you figure it out as you went? And when precisely did you adapt The Wheels on the Bus?
LMHM: You are certainly right: kids can be a tough audience! So can drunk adults at a bar, and while the techniques are slightly different, in both cases you have to figure out how to use humor, excitement, and other gimmicks to hold their attention. Whether you’re a teacher, a camp counselor, or an emcee, a large part of it is about creating a certain kind of magic that takes something as pedestrian as reading a story or lip syncing to someone else’s track and make it glamorous and irresistible.
For me, part of the fun of story hours is thinking about what’s funny and fun to kids (while also trying to throw in a few zingers to keep parents on their toes too). Kids love to laugh at nearly anything, but also a lot of typical kinds of drag humor doesn’t necessarily reach them: they don’t necessarily understand subtlety or sarcasm, but they love things that sound silly or break the rules. And drag can be excellent for that.
At my first story hours, I mainly just read some books, but it felt like we needed some extra song and dance. Honestly, I’m pretty sure I came up with the idea to modify “The Wheels on the Bus” in a taxi ride to a reading and it just worked out! But I truly don’t think I fully realized how well it worked on many levels until it came to making it into a book. For example, it was just natural to me that drag queens often parody songs—and that works so well for kids too, since they love repetition and already know the melody! And while I loved that the hips could swish just as well as wipers, I hadn’t fully realized how closely some of the lyrics really meshed with the original too.
BB: In terms of your new book, clearly it’s going to be a HUGE godsend to other drag queens doing storytimes that maybe don’t have as much experience speaking with large groups of squirmy toddlers. Do you ever give advice to other people on getting a storytime right?
LMHM: My number one tip is to be yourself. It sounds cheesy, but it applies to all forms of drag: even when we’re impersonating someone, there’s always an element of making that persona your own. And I think kids are the first to pick up on it when you’re not sincere. But the best drag always walks the line between exaggeration, parody, or over-the-top elements with a taste of sincerity. That’s what camp is all about: it may all be a fantasy, but there’s always a kernel of truth.
Otherwise, with DQSH we do trainings with librarians and educators on everything from read-aloud basics like when to pause to ask kids to respond, to how to answer tough questions raised by the books we read.
BB: So the danger with your book is that some folks are going to look at it and think, “Well, I’m not a drag queen so I can’t read this book for my storytime” (and yes, I’m completely ignoring the people who don’t like the book for nastier reasons). Ideally, what are some the ways in which people who aren’t drag queens can incorporate it into their own programming?
LMHM: For me, one of the beautiful things about drag is that literally anyone can try it: all you need is a bit of imagination and a willingness to take a risk. Many people think of drag as mostly about gender transgression, which is certainly part of it, but I also like to remind people that drag is also about playing with culture, poking at taboos, and envisioning better worlds. Of course, it’s rooted in queer cultures and I hope people will honor that legacy. But what sets drag apart from just any form of dress-up is that it’s really about coloring outside the lines. Which is to say, for anyone who wants to try on drag: be bold, do something that scares you a little, and then take it up a notch.
Part of what I like about the book, too, is that it’s more of an embodied understanding drag than any clear instruction or narrative. It gets kids to sing and move their bodies so they can get a taste of what it feels like to perform drag. Of course, some see that as “indoctrination,” but those haters are always going to hate LGBTQ people no matter what we do. For me, it’s about lifting some of the restrictions about what kids are told they can and can’t do, whether that’s swishing their hips or snapping their fingers.
Also, for educators who do want to get more in-depth about drag queens, I think there’s plenty they can cover to supplement the book. For example, it’s a great way to talk about Pride celebrations and LGBTQ histories. Drag queens (and kings) are also often integral to queer communities: we not only entertain, but we raise money, volunteer in our communities, get involved in politics. I’m actually working on an academic article with my friend Harper Keenan, an education professor at the University of British Columbia, about how to incorporate many of these ideas into what we’re calling “drag pedagogy.”
BB: You’ve been doing Drag Queen Story Hour for years and years now. Have you seen it change since you started?
LMHM: It really just grows and grows. Part of the genius of Michelle Tea’s original idea is that it’s really a simple formula: Drag Queen + Books + Kids = DQSH. But there are a lot of variables you can add in too, like the songs or crafts or face paintings, and each chapter or storyteller brings their own flavors. In NYC, it’s become a full-fledged operation doing multiple events per month, with special programs that are bilingual, targeted at kids with disabilities, or for older kids where they learn to sew or do makeup. In SF, they hold a kids drag ball, where queens teamed up with kids to put them in drag and read stories together. And now, during the pandemic, we’re doing story hours online via livestream to keep kids engaged while they’re home from school. We’re also doing more to build a strong network among chapters so we can support each other and make sure resources get shared in places that need them the most.
BB: Your illustrator is the hugely talented Olga de Dios. And usually authors don’t get a lot of input on the art in their stories, but this is not your run-of-the-mill storytime book. Did you offer any feedback on the art as the book was being put together? What do you think of the end product?
LMHM: I absolutely love the end product: it’s truly beyond my wildest dreams! I’m so grateful that I got to play a large role in suggesting illustrators, and after a friend showed me Olga’s other books, she was immediately at the top of my list. I’m so lucky that my publishers agreed and that she said yes!!! I knew I wanted this to stand out on shelves, and I just love the creativity of her characters—many of which are monsters!—and I just felt intuitively that as a queer illustrator she would understand the drag vibe, because it was already there in the quirkiness and fun of her other work. Once she signed on, I gave her some general thoughts and sent some photos of my drag friends as inspiration, but she mostly took it and ran with it! Honestly, I can be a bit of a “control queen” and I was shocked how little feedback I had. One genius idea she added was to make the town gradually become more colorful as the queens parade through it. If anything, I wish we got to work on more of it together because she’s just so incredible.
BB: Storytime books are, to my mind, the most needed and least appreciated picture books out there. Any future plans for other adaptations? Baby Shark? Head Shoulders Knees and Toes? Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear? What’s next on your roster?
LMHM: We’ll see! I do sing a drag version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It…” at story hours, though I am working on some more adaptation ideas. I also have a few ideas that are more narrative. But we’ll see what inspiration strikes in my next cab ride!
Special thanks to Lil Miss Hot Mess and Nicole Banholzer for making this interview happen.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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