It was story time at the library and 2-year-old Gus came prepared.
“I told him there’d be dancing and music, so he wanted to wear a tutu,” said his mother, Laura Mielenhausen, as Gus prowled the stacks in his pink tutu, mooing quietly to the toy cow he clutched in one chubby fist.
Gus joined the swirling crowd of kids wearing rainbows and sparkles and tie-dye and denim and tulle at Richfield’s Augsburg Park Library.
It was Saturday morning, time for Stories Together with Drag Performers — the first in a monthlong series that brings children and entertainers to Hennepin County libraries to celebrate their mutual love of stories, dress-up, and accepting people just the way they are.
A local legend, Miss Richfield 1981 pulled on her white gloves and flowery platform heels, pulled out her musical saw and got ready to dazzle the crowd.
But first, Alison Reiter, youth services librarian at the library, had a word for anyone in the room who had ever felt different, or weird, or thought they didn’t belong.
“I want you to know that it’s OK for you to be yourself. … Be true to who you are,” she said. “Please know that you are always welcome in the library.”
With that, Miss Richfield turned the page — with the help of a young volunteer from the audience, because white gloves do not lend themselves to page turning. It was a book called “Neither,” by Airlie Anderson; a story about a little green creature born in a land where everyone else was either blue or yellow.
“You can’t play with us because you don’t look like us,” the blue and yellow creatures told the green one who was neither.
It was a book some families here knew well.
“Our daughter checked it out multiple times,” said Nikki, one of the moms in the audience. “We’re a two-mom family, and it’s so important to have the support of the library … and for [the children] to see other families like ours.”
You may know Miss Richfield 1981 from the “Today” show, “The Tonight Show,” “Cake Boss,” those Orbitz commercials or theater stages from Minneapolis to Cape Cod. Tirelessly spreading the good news about Richfield, Minn., “where butter is a spice and gravy is a beverage,” she was named Richfield Citizen of the Year in 2015, which is more than most of us can say.
The man behind the bouffant, creator Russ King, grew up just blocks from the Richfield library. This is his second year performing in the Hennepin story time lineup.
“I love kids, and I love just letting them be kids,” said King, who rolled with the surprises that come with any live performance — the kids who wandered around during the reading, the kid who started bongo drumming on other kids’ heads, the baby who kept trying to take bites out of the books on the shelves.
When a curious toddler yanked on a streamer and brought down an entire section of the reading stage’s rainbow backdrop, King turned it into a life lesson.
“It’s OK,” Miss Richfield reassured the children, “because rainbows come and go, don’t they?”
Richfield librarians were in force Saturday, dressed in their rainbow best and braced for trouble. Online, there had been ugly talk and threats of protests. Anyone who wanted to disrupt story time would have to get through a united front of book lovers in “All Are Welcome Here” shirts.
In the end, the only report of trouble was someone skulking in the back of the room with a notebook, which honestly, might have been me.
The library system regularly invites celebrity guests in for story time: firefighters, police officers, mail carriers, the mayor of Richfield. Minneapolis Central hosts a Shake Rattle and Read story time with local musicians.
“This year, we have received some negative feedback from a very small minority of people” about Stories Together with Drag Performers, said Ashley Bieber, the county’s youth services librarian. “We encourage them to attend an event and see for themselves the joy and happiness it brings children and families in our community.”
Libraries across the country have invited drag performers to story time, to the delight of their youngest patrons.
“Kids are usually completely delighted to see a performer who is so open and willing to embrace just the extreme of dress-up, which is something all children enjoy,” Bieber said. “They’re just over the moon and fascinated.”
The Stories Together series continues Friday at 10:30 a.m. at Pierre Bottineau Library. For a full list of upcoming events, visit hclib.org.
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