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How Drag Story Time became a thing at Kelowna’s downtown library

Drag artist Freida Whales will be hosting Drag Story Time at Kelowna's downtown library on Jan. 28.
Image Credit: Submitted/Jillian Karpick

Libraries everywhere work hard to encourage children to discover the joys of reading books.

That’s just a given.

But, why is the Kelowna library pursuing that goal by bringing drag artist Freida Whales to read to young children?

“I’m more fun as Freida,” Tyler Cook, who does drag as Freida Whales, told “I can be more expressive. I’ve got more fun costumes that the kids love. I’ve got giant foam wigs that the younger kids are enthralled with.”

By day, Cook is a teaching assistant in an elementary school. He took up drag about six years ago and does drag shows all over the Kamloops and Okanagan regions – including some story times in libraries reading to young children but mostly in adult venues.

His next story time is at Kelowna’s downtown library at 11 a.m., Jan. 28.

“I work in a school and I see every day how a lot of kids are more and more dependent on technology and they can’t read or don’t enjoy reading,” Cook said. “So, I’ll do as much as I can to get children to enjoy a good book.”

Just as a clown dressed up in his clown outfit is more entertaining than in civilian dress, being in drag can be more entertaining than Cook in his regular outfit.

But, that doesn’t explain why drag is such a thing, especially since it triggered protests when he last did it in Kelowna in 2019.

READ MORE: Drag Queen storytime to continue at Kelowna library

More recently, a drag queen story time in a Coquitlam library last weekend sparked a confrontation involving police.

According to CBC, about 10 protesters were shouted down by 100 supporters. Drag queen Conni Smudge was escorted into the library by RCMP officers.

“I’m concerned about protesters,” Okanagan Regional Library CEO Danielle Hubbard told “I don’t want it to be an uncomfortable experience for my staff or for Freida or for the families there. I want for people who are choosing to come to the event to have an enjoyable, comfortable experience.”

Protesters, if they show up, are expected to stay outside the library building.

Hubbard has informed the RCMP about her concerns and has been told they will have a presence there. Kelowna city councillor Loyal Wooldridge will also be on hand.

The protest in 2019, at the second of two Drag Story Times that Freida Whales did, drew 300 supporters and only two protesters, Cook said.

“Those were my first two protesters. I’m very proud of that,” Cook said with a laugh. “That’s when you know you’ve made it when you’ve pissed somebody off.”

Drag Story Time events have been held in other Okanagan communities where Okanagan Regional Library has branches but have not triggered the level of opposition that has been shown in Kelowna, both Hubbard and Cook said.

Men dressing in drag have been around ever since there were clothes, Cook said, pointing out that it was men who first wore high heels and make-up and pink was the favoured royal colour.

Drag was popular in the 1990s, he said, but really took off in the 2000s, especially after RuPaul’s Drag Race became a hit TV show starting in 2009, which was an inspiration to Cook.

READ MORE: 'RuPaul's Drag Race' cast push back against hate, threats

But is it really necessary to have a man dressed as a woman reading to and entertaining mainly preschool aged children?

There are other options and other groups will be presenting in the coming months.

The Jan. 28 performance is the first of three Community Reader Story Time events in Kelowna library this winter.

The next two will feature firefighters and nurses.

“If a group of firefighters want to come and read dressed as firefighters, that’s going to be really cool for some kids,” Hubbard said. “It’s not that you have any particular message or slant other than, 'hey, I’m a firefighter and I support kids learning to read.'”

The whole idea behind story time is to encourage children to love literacy, she said.

“It’s certainly something public libraries aspire to and believe in – providing story time programs even to kids who are too young to read themselves,” Hubbard said. “It introduces them to the concept that books have words and words have stories and stories give a perspective on truth and life and learning. There’s also the social engagement part to story time where children or families or parents are making connections with other people in their communities.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINER: Drag queens and how they got pulled into politics

Each presenter brings a different perspective.

Cook’s goal, along with getting kids to read is, through his selection of reading material, to educate about inclusiveness.

“I’m pretty specific about the books I pick because I don’t like to read too wordy ones, especially with the younger kids, because it goes over their heads and they stop listening,” he said. “My criteria for picking is, I want books about someone who’s understanding who they are and just accepting everyone around them for being different or the same or whatever.”

One he’s read before is about a spoon being jealous of a fork because the fork has all the fun of stabbing things and no one does anything dangerous with a spoon.

“Then the mom says: ‘Oh. You get to dive into ice cream and sit in a hot mug of tea.’ And he goes: ‘Ya. That’s fun.’ So it’s about finding out what’s cool about yourself and not, kind of, being down.”

Image Credit: Submitted/Jillian Karpick

Books are selected in conjunction and don't carry gender identity messages, he said.

Cook also says he doesn’t dress provocatively or reveal much flesh, even to his adult-only audiences, as some popular drag performers are known to do.

But, again, is drag really a necessary for story time?

“I think a program like a Drag Story Time is valuable in that it showcases people being different from the white Christian mainstream,” Hubbard said. “Whether you like what the other group represents. Whether you can relate to it or not. Whatever you may think of it, it’s just valuable to have examples of people being different from each other and being visible.”

All the controversy, and the corresponding media attention, also gets conversation going.

“The fact that an event like this generates discussion or opposing viewpoints, I don’t think is inherently negative,” Hubbard said. “In fact, if there is something positive about this, is that it's a form of human expression or a form of information that can generate conversation and can get people to look at things from different viewpoints.”

A petition against the event was quickly removed earlier this month because, Cook said, it was full of misinformation.

In response, Sydney Richardson-Carr, started a Continue Family Drag Show Storytime petition in support. It is rapidly approaching 3,000 signatures.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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