Queen Olivia St Redfern: Rainbow Story Time

At The Sapling, we believe that books grow humans. Rainbow Story Time is a recent phenomenon helping to grow humans who aren’t too hung up on the gender binary, and who are comfortable with who they are. Here to tell us all about its evolution in Aotearoa is Queen Olivia St Redfern!

Image credit: Upper Hutt Library

I vividly remember falling in love with Dame Edna Everage on a 1980s telethon somewhere between the age of five and ten. It wasn’t until many years later, as a rebellious teenager, that I met drag queens proper while underage drinking in a now-forgotten gay bar in the back suburbs of Hamilton. Maybe Rainbow Story Time will prevent a generation of children from growing up into the kind of lost soul that I became in my late teens and early twenties.

Rainbow Story Time—or as it is known elsewhere: Drag Queen Story Time—is an event that has been held in libraries in North America over the last few years. Drag Queens visit libraries and read story books aloud to assembled children and their caregivers. In Wellington we have called it Rainbow Story Time to make room for Drag Kings too.

A Drag Queen, or Drag King, is an entertainer who performs in hyper-gendered or gender-non-conforming clothing, hair and makeup. My principal motivation for being part of Rainbow Story Time in libraries around the Wellington region is to give today’s kids the kind of childhood I wished that I could have had. The knowledge that some little boys like to wear dresses, and play elastics, and play house. We seem to have made some progress with little girls being allowed to play with construction sets and climb trees, but there’s still a stigma about girly boys. Or indeed, little people that are non-binary, that don’t (like myself) fit neatly into the socially prescribed behaviours and attitudes that are matched to the gender as assigned at birth.

We seem to have made some progress with little girls being allowed to play with construction sets and climb trees, but there’s still a stigma about girly boys. 

Drag and children are a natural fit, so long as you strip out the innuendo and keep it G-rated. We are like big colourful clowns, we can sing like The Wiggles, and we have more friends than that purple dinosaur thing. I myself have the added magic of living in a space station high above Wellington, with my trusty pussycat, Cuddle Unit Five. At the end of a rainbow story time in Porirua, one kid asked me, ‘What colour is your spaceship?’ to which I replied, ‘Silver, of course! It’s a design classic.’

I’m sure that there’s something pedagogically sound about playing make believe with children to assist in the formation of the psyches. We spend endless hours watching them make up worlds and stories and adventures as they play. Why not let them play with gender identity as we let them play with whatever superheroes Hollywood has imprinted on their minds this movie season?

Why not let them play with gender identity as we let them play with whatever superheroes Hollywood has imprinted on their minds this movie season?

The first Rainbow Story Time was a couple of years ago during Wellington City’s Pride Week programme. It seemed that great minds were thinking alike. A friend of mine (hi, Simon!) and I were sunning ourselves in Frank Kitts Park talking about the possibility. At the same time, unbeknownst to us, Bella Simpson from that year’s pride committee was in talks with someone at the library.

The Rainbow Story Time planets had aligned, and so one sunny evening, Stephi Onassis (Mx Capital Drag 2016) and I met Kassie McLuskie to work out logistics. Kassie had a great stack of childrens books from the City Library collection and the three of us worked out which books we would read. I was careful to include books that had a female protagonist because I have deep respect for my lesbian sisters. We looked at books about gender variance, about non-traditional families, and books about diversity being A-OK.

I’ve done more than a few Rainbow Story Times around the Wellington region now. Wellington City Library, Upper Hutt Library, Lower Hutt Memorial Library, Porirua Library, Naenae Library and even a literary festival in Greytown. (Also known as Gaytown on account of the gentrification, haw haw haw.)

Me and my glam gang of queens have read loads of books, but these three have a special place in my heart.

And Tango Makes Three

By Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Illustrated by Henry Cole

This book made me all teary the first time I read it at City Library. It’s about a couple of gay penguins who only have eyes for each other, and also have quite the best address: they live at the zoo in New York’s Central Park.

Bless their feathery little heads, but they keep trying to build a nest and hatch a rock. The zoo keeper gets the idea that they could hatch an egg that another penguin pair couldn’t deal with. And so the penguins become a family with two daddies and everybody cheers. Then the sun sets over the city and everyone snuggles up, safe, secure and loved.

At which point I am grateful that I’m wearing waterproof mascara. The double whammy of happy penguins and a sea of cherubic faces looking up as me is really very moving.

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Worm Loves Worm

By JJ Austrian

Illustrated by Mike Curato

This story is about two worms who want to get married, and have to get their invertebrate mates into the idea that questions like ‘which one of you is the wife?’ are a bit silly.

It’s also a great one to read out loud because their friends—cricket, beetle, bees and spider—really lend themselves to campy voices. I always give beetles German accents, because you know: the VW Beetle. Oh, how we laugh!

In the end the worms have a lovely lovely wedding, with some great laughs along the way.

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Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress

By Christine Baldacchino

Illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant

This book really tests my stiff-upper-lip as I read it to the assembled parents and children, because of all of it speaks to my own experience. Morris like to paint his nails, wear heels and the tangerine dress from the dress-up box. But children can be (and in this case are) cruel.

Poor Morris has to have a sickie (so relatable), when he dreams up an amazing adventure in space with his cat Moo. Back at school the next day, he is emboldened and the other children learn that it doesn’t matter what you wear, the best people know where to find adventure.

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We often have songs during Rainbow Story Time, to let the little ones burn off their wriggle energy. At the first Story Time, I was presented with a bouquet of flowers and they cued up ‘Rainbow Connection’, sung by Kermit the Frog, on the sound system. I sat on my special reading chair, and swayed in time with the music, looking out at a sea of little faces brimming with acceptance and wonderment. Such a thing would have been unthinkable in my own 1980s small-town New Zealand childhood.

And with that thought I tear up at the wonder of it all.

Queen Olivia St Redfern
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Queen Olivia St Redfern is the drag alter-ego of non-binary entertainer Connie Johnston. Queen Olivia lives on Space Station 1 in geosynchronous orbit about Wellington, New Zealand with her trusty pussy cat Cuddle Unit 5.

Connie lives in Wellington, New Zealand and spends her time writing, practising the theremin, and playing with makeup, muumuus and wigs. Connie was born and raised in Ngāruawāhia. Her DNA links her to England, Scotland, Western Europe, Scandinavia and the Jewish diaspora. She/her pronouns please.