PJ Library, MaTovu partner for drag queen story time

Jennifer Baer

It’s been called inappropriate and much worse and drawn the ire of a Missouri lawmaker. Still, books will be read when PJ Library holds drag queen story time at MaTovu in the Botanical Heights neighborhood later this month.

So popular is this event — the first of its kind for PJ Library in St. Louis — Jennifer Baer had to cut off registration at 50 families before the month even began due to space constraints. 

“Other PJ libraries around the country have done drag queen story time and I’ve heard great things about them,” said Baer, director of family engagement at PJ Library, which is part of Jewish Federation of St. Louis. “The folks at MaTovu approached me about collaborating. We advertised by sending out one email and posting it on Facebook and Instagram. It filled up extremely fast.”

Drag queen story time is pretty much what it sounds like: “Drag queens read stories to the children, then there is a craft and usually a snack,” says Baer. At MaTovu, two local drag queens are expected to be reading to children ranging from infants to 5 years old, though some older kids and parents will also be in attendance. Baer wasn’t yet sure which books would be read.

According to the website www.dragqueenstoryhour.org, drag queen story hour or story time began in San Francisco in 2015 and “captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models.” 

Program advocates say these events not only foster literacy but help to teach children about positivity and acceptance, including being more tolerant to members of the LGBTQ community.

“MaTovu has a history, albeit short since we are just over a year old, of being a queer-forward space for LGBTQ folks to feel welcomed and empowered to participate in our programming,” explained Shira Berkowitz, president of the board at MaTovu and one of its founders. “When our community members started talking about the desire to attend the popular and whimsical drag queen story hours, but that Shabbat provided a barrier, it was a no-brainer for us to reach out and host our own. We chose to partner with PJ Library as both of our missions align on this program.” 

Baer adds that drag queen story time also is in keeping with Jewish values as it embraces b’tzelem elohim (we are all created in the image of God), kavod (respect) and adam yehidi nivrah (every person is uniquely beautiful). 

“Kids are very non-judgmental unless they are taught not to be,” said Baer. “When kids come to hear books read to them, they come open-hearted. In general, I have found kids to be very accepting.”

One person who is not so accepting is Rep. Ben Baker, R-Neosho, in southwest Missouri. He has proposed a bill in the Missouri legislature whereby public libraries that display “age-inappropriate material” could lose state funding and even see their librarians fined or jailed. Baker told the Kansas City Star that the “Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act” was drafted in reaction to drag queen story hours being held across the state.

“In some places — St. Louis, Kansas City and I think St. (Joseph) — they’ve had these drag queen story hours and that’s something that I take objection to and I think a lot of parents do,” Baker told the Star. “That’s where in a public space, our kids could be exposed to something that’s age-inappropriate. That’s what I’m trying to tackle.”

The bill would require state library districts to create five-person oversight boards of adults that would hold public hearings and decide what “materials” and programming were age-inappropriate.

Baer says she doesn’t get involved with politics but notes how popular drag queen story time has been at libraries throughout the country as well as in St. Louis. According to www.dragqueenstoryhour.org, there are more than 45 independent chapters hosting drag queen story hours throughout the United States as well as in Japan, Sweden and Germany.

“Basically, we want to inspire a love of reading while also teaching deeper lessons about self-love and that it’s OK to be different,” said Baer. “Kids should be comfortable with who they are. That’s a really powerful message. They should love themselves and be kind to one another.”