A drag queen in a poofy pink gown is animated as she reads from a children's picture book.
Per Sia reads the children's book "Bodies Are Cool" outside the Rockridge library. Credit: David Meza

It was a sunny Saturday morning in the Rockridge library parking lot, and Per Sia was reading A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo to about 100 rapt preschool-aged kids and parents.

The popular children’s book—which has been repeatedly challenged and banned—cheekily tells the fictional story of a pet rabbit named Marlon Bundo (who in reality was owned by former Vice President Mike Pence). In the story, Marlon gets engaged to another male rabbit.

See the full list of Oakland Public Library summer events.

Per Sia got to the part of the book in which a bitter character called “the stink bug” bullies Marlon and his fiancé. “This is the part that you won’t like!” warned a high-pitched voice in the audience. Per Sia narrated the stink bug telling the rabbits, “Boy bunnies have to marry girl bunnies.… You are different, and different is bad.”

The Rockridge audience hissed in response.   

This, after all, was Drag Story Hour, a longstanding interactive event where drag performers read children’s books—often with themes of acceptance, inclusivity, and identity—at libraries and similar sites. The series started in San Francisco in 2015 and has since been replicated in many other states and countries.

This summer, like previous summers, San Francisco-based drag queen Per Sia is reading at several Oakland Public Library branches

“I always joke that it’s my East Bay summer tour,” Per Sia told The Oaklandside before Saturday’s event got underway. “I have a little following here.”

As drag queen Per Sia displays a book, a young child stands up to peer closely at it.
A listener comes up for a closer look. Credit: David Meza

Before the reading, twin 4-year-olds approached Per Sia, who was decked out in a bright pink ball gown, hoop earrings, and a high ponytail. The kids wanted to meet her and tell her some important news. “I have a Marlon Bundo stuffy,” one confided.

An adult in attendance also came up to Per Sia. “I want to admire your courage with all of the bullshit going on,” he said.

While Drag Story Hour has been around for almost a decade, this event and ones like it around the country have increasingly become the target of conservative protests as well as fodder for the homophobic and false conspiracy theory claiming that supporters of LGBTQ rights and education are “grooming” children.

Last year, members of the extremist group the Proud Boys disrupted a Drag Story Hour event at the San Lorenzo Library, about a 15-minute drive south of Oakland, yelling homophobic and transphobic slurs. One wore a t-shirt that said “Kill your local pedophile” above an image of an assault weapon.

In response to this and similar incidents, Drag Story Hour created a safety marshal program called Shields Up!, training volunteers in de-escalation tactics, contingency planning, and helping audience members enter and leave libraries. 

“My anxiety levels are so high, but I continue to do this because this is what I love,” Per Sia told The Oaklandside. 

One of the original performers at Drag Story Hour, she said the events are about “being creative, expressing yourself, and having seats at the table.” 

“The Oakland Public Library has hosted Drag Queen Story Hour for many years, pre-dating recent controversy. It has consistently received strong support and praise,” the library said in a statement sent to The Oaklandside. “The program inspires imagination and empathy, is responsive to children’s developmental needs, and is part of our commitment to serve and represent families in Oakland.”

On Saturday, in addition to the bunny book, Per Sia read It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity.

The book explains, “Your gender identity might match what people thought you were when you were born, or it might not.” Per Sia told the parents in the audience that the book can help people of all ages start to understand new concepts, noting the glossary of terms in the back. 

She also read Bodies Are Cool, leading a cheerful call-and-response celebrating all the different skin colors, hair types, sizes, wrinkles, abilities, and shapes a human body could possibly have. 

During one of the readings, a young audience member leaned over to ask their parent, “Is her”—meaning Per Sia—”a boy or a girl?” The parent responded, “She’s a queen.”

Several families with young kids sit on colorful mats placed on a parking lot.
Families take seats in colorful mats before the event gets underway. Several other branches are hosting Drag Story Hour sessions later this summer. Credit: David Meza

In addition to reading at libraries, Per Sia teaches first graders at an afterschool program in San Francisco. At night, she hosts parties, DJs, and performs in drag for adults. 

At Drag Story Hour, Per Sia intersperses song and dance between the books. “What’s a drag performer without a lip sync number?” she explained. 

The mostly Gen-X parents seemed to enjoy her rendition of Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” as much as, if not more than, their kids did. While lip-syncing, Per Sia floated through the crowd, holding up her poofy, tiered skirt so she didn’t trip over it.

After the event, Gregory Arthur, who brought his 4-year-old daughter to the reading, called it “engaging and refreshing.”

“It’s liberating for some of the children that are questioning—it’s a safe zone,” he said.

Speaking with The Oaklandside, Per Sia said a moment from a previous reading has stuck with her and keeps her going despite the risks.

When technical issues forced a delay at the Piedmont Avenue Branch recently, the drag queen asked if anyone in the room had a joke to tell. Instead, a mother approached Per Sia and handed her a postcard.

Per Sia pulled up a photo of the postcard on her phone Saturday and read it aloud, tears streaming down her face.

In the message, the mother told Per Sia that her 3-year-old daughter had been “enthralled” by the performer after seeing her read and “couldn’t stop talking” about her. The young girl called Per Sia “Macarena” after the dance she always performs at her readings. 

“She says, ‘I wonder if Macarena is having breakfast too,’” the mother wrote. “She dresses up like you, in long tutus and sneakers.”

“So yeah,” Per Sia said, wiping away her tears. “That makes it worth it.”

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.