Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Jones Library holds ‘Tea Party and Storytime’ event with drag queen special guest

The western Massachusetts community came together to support the event featuring professional drag queen Giganta Smalls.
Community members and Parasol Patrol members stand at library entrance to show support. Jack Underhill/Daily Collegian (2023).

Jones Library in Amherst held its annual children’s “Tea Party and Storytime” event on Saturday morning with special guest Giganta Smalls, a professional drag queen and educator from Connecticut.

The event welcomed 25 children, aged four to nine, and their caregivers to the Woodbury Room of the library where children made an arts and crafts crown, ate snacks, drank tea and listened to Smalls read story books.

As a safety precaution due to possible protest during the event, a capacity limit was put in place and those who wished to attend were required to pre-register.

Mia Cabana, head of youth services, has worked at Jones Library for the past seven years and was the event’s organizer. She detailed that Smalls read books such as “Luli and the Language of Tea” and “The Hips on the Drag Go Swish, Swish, Swish.” Smalls also read “Just Add Glitter,” written by local author Angela DiTerlizzi, which Cabana said advocates for the power of creativity and how “you can make anything better by adding a little bit of sparkle to it.”

While this is the first storytime at Jones Library with a drag queen as its special guest, “Tea Party and Storytime” has been a long-standing annual tradition at the library. Cabana expressed that the event originated as an American Girl Doll tea party but has since evolved to become “less gendered.”

“And the part that felt really important to continue is that kids, I think, respond really well to being treated, you know, like they’re important, and have a reason to get dressed up and to come together,” Cabana said. “So, this year, we thought that it would add another element of fabulousness to it to have a drag queen story time.”

While Smalls is a professional drag queen, she is also an elementary level special education paraprofessional. She has been a reader at similar reading events throughout Connecticut, including Hartford Public Libraries.

She has a connection to an employee at the library who invited her to take part of the event. Giganta Smalls, her stage name, declined to have her legal name included in the article due to “outside circumstances.”

Because of the possible pushback and protest that was anticipated prior to the event, APD was notified and the library partnered with the Community Responders for Equity, Safety & Service (CRESS) to ensure safety for all who attended.

CRESS is a local department whose purpose is to “provide community safety services in situations that don’t involve violence or serious crime,” with a mission of dismantling systemic racism, according to its website. The department acts as an alternative to calls that would otherwise involve police departments.

“This was the first event that we pre-planned to partner with them for and they were great,” Cabana said. “I mean, everything from helping us set up the room beforehand to knowing when to sort of step in for library staff, and their presence was really appreciated, and I think helped to keep the event peaceful.”

Cabana described that throughout the days leading up to the event, there were some who frequently voiced their concerns over having a drag queen as a special guest. Comments on social media also consisted of protest regarding the book being read at the event. On the morning of Feb. 14, the Jones Library Board of Trustees held a meeting where someone publicly commented about their concerns, according to Cabana. However, the board had no intentions of cancelling the story time.

“Nobody wavered, everybody said, ‘we’re just going to do this.’ And I think that we were lucky to have already had our plans in place because unfortunately, we’ve seen other libraries across the state deal with that kind of scrutiny and push back I think, is the light way of putting it,” Cabana said.

Cabana reached out to other libraries that have organized similar events to gain a better understanding of what to expect in terms of possible protest.

To eliminate the possibility of video footage taken of the story hour being shared to social media, Cabana said that Disney music was played during the reading because copyright infringement laws prevent the audio from being shared across social media. “Kids just think it’s a fun party,” Cabana said.

Members of the non-profit organization Parasol Patrol stationed themselves around the outside of the entrance of the library. Adorned with colorful, vibrant clothing and large rainbow umbrellas, they acted as a barrier to shield children from protesters who may be shouting hateful speech or holding inappropriate signs.

“They really just wanted to come out in numbers to support families, to support the event and to be a loud colorful presence on our lawn,” Cabana said about the patrol.

Members of the patrol emphasized that they were not protesting nor causing unrest but were solely present to protect the children and celebrate books. The two members that spoke to the Daily Collegian declined to provide their names due to prior harassment that they had faced from working for the non-profit.

Smalls noticed that much of the pushback comes through online channels and how in-person confrontations are less frequent.

“There’s always been a lot of talk online but never really any action in person from people who are not supportive, but people who are supportive tend to come out in droves, I’ve noticed,” said Smalls.

Carol Gray, an Amherst teacher stood outside of the library along with other community members in support of the event.

“I really appreciate that the children’s librarian had the courage and appreciation of diversity to host this event. And I’m proud to be part of a community that has a large number of people who will celebrate that,” Gray said.

Rachel Gordon, a Greenfield resident and non-profit worker who was among the supporters outside of the library described that there was an instance of unrest during the tea party, but it was short-lasting.

“There were like five people here before. You know, they shouted some nasty stuff. We drown them out. We were yelling, ‘We love books!’ Because we do,” Gordon said.

Cabana and Smalls emphasized that these events are both beneficial and enjoyable for children.

“Kids, I think, respond really well to being treated, you know, like they’re important, and have a reason to get dressed up and to come together,” said Cabana. “I think that it’s really powerful to see an adult who is unafraid to be playful and to dress up and to express themselves in a way that feels empowering to them.”

“I want kids to know that it’s okay to be themselves … And that can look like however you want to,” Smalls said.

Smalls explained that there is often a misconception about drag queens.

“I think that it’s important for adults to see that drag queens, they’re not out to get your kids … I think what people who are against drag queen story times don’t realize is that drag is not a monolith, we’re not all the same … There are people who are part of the drag community who I would not want to be around children. But there are people like me who work with kids in their day-to-day life and who like working with kids.”

Smalls has always admired bright colors and cartoons since she was a kid and draws her drag inspiration from characters Miss Piggy and Sailor Moon. “I just want people to have fun and people to realize that I’m just a silly person in a costume.”

Cabana also pointed out the misinformation that often surrounds drag queen book readings. “But at the end of the day, it was like a really fun community tea party. And I think the kids who were there all enjoyed it, I think it meant a lot to the grownups who also came. And it meant a lot to us as library staff to see the community rally around this,” Cabana said.

Jack Underhill can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @JackUnderhill16

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