Drag story hour features inclusivity, mermaids

Events at Hennepin County libraries aim to promote self-acceptance

Don Waalen-Radzevicius
Don Waalen-Radzevicius reads to children during a drag story hour held Oct. 18 at Uptown’s Walker Library. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

On an October morning, Minneapolis resident Don Waalen-Radzevicius became a mermaid. 

He donned a sequined costume that sparkled under the lights of Uptown’s Walker library and wore large blue earrings and a curly ginger wig with peacock feathers protruding from it.

Limited in mobility because of the costume, Waalen-Radzevicius was wheeled by office chair into a library meeting room, where over 30 infants, toddlers and parents awaited his arrival. 

“I swam all the way here this morning from Northeast Minneapolis,” he told them, drawing blank stares from the kids but laughs from their parents.

Waalen-Radzevicius, who read three books and led several songs, is among the local actors who have participated in drag story hours. A handful of Twin Cities library systems and organizations have hosted them in recent years, including the Hennepin County library system and the Wild Rumpus bookstore in Linden Hills.

Though some events across the U.S. have drawn protests by people who don’t feel children should be exposed to drag, many appreciate the messages of inclusivity and self-acceptance the events provide.

“It gives kids and family an easy opportunity to make [inclusivity] normal in their lives,” parent Jennifer Kertsen said after the Walker event.

Drag story hour was first held in late 2015 in San Francisco. Libraries and organizations across the U.S. have held similar events in the years since.

The Hennepin County library system has hosted a “Stories Together with Drag Performers” series the past two years as part of its October LGBTQIA+ History Month celebration. This year, drag performers have read books and led songs at 11 library branches in Minneapolis and its suburbs. A 12th and final event is scheduled Nov. 2 at Hosmer Library.

“I think it’s important to show that there’s more than one way of living or being,” said Waalen-Radzevicius, who has performed at two “Stories Together” events this year.

Ashley Bieber, a youth services librarian, said goals for the series include offering an “enriching early-literacy experience” with an added emphasis on “celebrating dress-up and who you are as a person.”

Bieber, a member of the library system’s Pride Workgroup, said the events have typically drawn 40–50 people and that the system received a lot of positive feedback to its 2018 series.

“We thought that it could be a really special thing to offer queer families and to make them feel welcome in our libraries,” she said.

At the Walker library event, some kids crawled around and ate snacks as Waalen-Radzevicius read. Others sat contentedly in their parents’ laps.

Waalen-Radzevicius’ books included messages of acceptance and persistence — and mermaids, of course. In one, a boy who longs to be a mermaid makes his own costume and eventually marches in a parade alongside his grandma. In another, a young mermaid cares for a small grain of sand that eventually becomes a beautiful pearl.

Early in that book, the mermaid swims through a kelp forest, a picture of which Waalen-Radzevicius panned around the room.

“Tomorrow morning, you ask your mommies and your daddies for a kelp smoothie,” he quipped.

Kersten, a Richfield High School teacher, attended the event with her husband, Jon Olson, and their 81/2-month-old daughter, Zoey. She said she came because she wants to support the LGBTQIA+ community and raise her daughter to be accepting of all people.

Jenniser Nelson, who brought her 11/2-year-old daughter, Yolanda, to the event, said she comes to story hour every Friday, which is “always wonderful.” She said it’s neat for kids to see someone in costume. “It’s important for kids to meet lots of other people,” she said.

At Wild Rumpus, store manager Drew Sieplinda said they hope to set up a monthly drag story hour.

She said about 75 people came to a drag story hour the library held this past April, which also included music and a glitter and face-painting station. “The kids just love it,” she said. “What kid doesn’t love dress up and dancing?”

The Hennepin County library system has also hosted a queer book club and a history film series as part of its celebration of LGBTQIA+ History Month. More information about the final Stories Together event and the system’s LGBTQIA+ celebration can be found at tinyurl.com/Hennepin-LGBTQIA.