Lil Miss Hot Mess has me laughing, hollering and crying my way through this Q&A. Swipe to find out what gives her life, why LGBTQ+ themes in picture books are so critical, and how “swish, swish, swish” is both subversive and healing.
Little Miss Hot Mess is a force. Exhibit A: when she’s not hosting readings across the country and serving as one of the founding @dragquenestoryhour queens, she is finishing her PhD in media studies at NYU. Her starred reviewed THE HIPS ON THE DRAG QUEEN GO SWISH, SWISH, SWISH is a delightfully unrestrained take on the original nursery rhyme. Though, fair warning, there’s no shot you can curl up quietly in a rocking chair and read this gem before bedtime. It *requires* twirling, shimmying and blah-blah’ing into the night!
On the last day of Pride Month, I hope you pocket a dose of Little Miss Hot Mess’ wisdom and carry it with you throughout the rest of the year. I have already written her words on a post-it note over my writing desk: “Claim it and keep at it.” Thank you, thank you for your vulnerability and raw inspiration, Lil Miss Hot Mess.
And if it wasn’t already clear from Olga de Dios‘ brilliant illustrations: #allblacklivesmatter
What is your favorite line from The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish?
This is such a Sophie’s Choice moment, it’s hard to pick one! Though if forced, I think it’s the hips going “swish, swish, swish” because in many ways it feels the most subversive and healing. When I was a kid, I was teased for being too swishy, too feminine, and even though I didn’t have the words for it, too queer — so it’s a way of reclaiming something that was used against me. And I like inviting kids and adults of any gender to get in touch with their feminine sides, even if only for a moment. Maybe you like swishing your hips, maybe you don’t — but you certainly won’t know until you try.
You are the ultimate expert at engaging kids through story times. Why do you think kids connect so viscerally with drag?
On the one hand, I think kids connect with the spectacle of drag: super-shiny, garishly-glittery, and otherwise over-the-top looks! We stimulate the senses just by being present! And I think that’s why we often see parents with really young kids (sometimes just months old) at our readings. But below the surface, drag is fundamentally about play and living out your fantasy, which is something kids are especially interested in and good at. Drag queens just keep it going even when we grow up, and we show that there’s no reason you can’t live out your dreams.
You describe how song parodies are common in drag queen culture, which made way for this adaptation feeling as natural as it does. What was your process for writing the lyrics?
Honestly, most of them I came up with in my mind on the way to a story hour when I was trying to think of what songs to sing and thought it would be fun to give the classics a twist. Though when it came to turning it into a book, I made some edits. For example, when I first started singing it, the hands went “jaaaazzzzzz” but it felt hard to capture the feeling of that in a written form, so I changed that to finger snaps. I also added the twirl at the end to give it a big finale!
What do you hope children take away from this story?
Though there isn’t a direct message for the book, I really just want kids to feel the fun of drag by moving their bodies. To me that’s way more important than any sort of “drag 101” or introduction I could offer.
What role do you think picture books can play in honoring and amplifying the LGBTQ+ and drag community?
I think picture books are such an important way that kids learn: not only about the world around them, but about what the world can be. And since LGBTQ+ people are in every community — whether visible like drag queens or not — kids should learn about our history and experiences. Though there were some early beacons of queer kid lit, it’s really only been within the past 5-10 years that we’ve really seen any sort of wave of LGBTQ+ themed children’s books, though it seems to grow every year. And of course, we need even more books that showcase the diversity within LGBTQ+ communities, including more BIPOC, trans, non-binary, and disabled, characters.
What is a meaningful moment in your journey of bringing this book to life?
I think the moment where it first truly clicked into place was seeing the first round of character sketches from the illustrator Olga de Dios. I only learned of her work through this process, when a friend recommended her other books — and I knew instantly I wanted to work with her. And really, it’s pretty rare for an author to get their first choice of illustrator for a lot of reasons, so I was extra lucky. But seeing those first sketches (which were partially based on photos I sent of some of my drag queen friends), I just knew she got it and that these characters would not only come to life but give us life (as we queen say)! Honestly, I’m still in awe, and I still notice new amazing details each time I read the book.
Who are your writer heroes?
So many! I mean, I have an affinity for so many queer writers throughout history, many of whom I liked before I even knew they were queer (or likely queer), like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Sarah Schulman, Paul Monette, Audre Lorde. And many of my favorite children’s authors from when I was a kid also were queer, like Maurice Sendak and Tomie DePaola. Also, I must give the biggest shoutout to Michelle Tea, who is not only a phenomenal writer and not only founded DQSH, but also has done so much to foster queer literature over the past couple decades. So many queer writers and artists owe her a huge debt, and I’m one of them.
Do you have words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
It’s funny, I still don’t necessarily consider myself a writer, despite having now published a children’s book, academic articles, and essays in mainstream news publications. So, I don’t know who needs to hear this more than me but: if you write, you’re a writer. Claim it and keep at it. And be open to feedback: that’s something I always struggle with, from writing to drag, because I like to be independent. But feedback is truly a generous gift and can only make your work stronger. (And of course, you don’t have to take any of it you don’t want to!)
What about words of wisdom for aspiring drag queens?
Just do it! I wanted to be a queen for years and felt like I didn’t know how. But here’s the secret: just put on something that feels a little beyond, a little risky, and voila!—you are a drag queen (or king, or whatever you want to be). Now, you may still have a lot of work to do to hone your craft (twelve years later and I’m still learning to paint my face), but with any creative pursuit, you’ve got to start somewhere and then stick with it. Oh, and learn your drag herstory, but don’t be beholden to it: the best drag looks both back and into the future.
The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish was published by Running Press Kids on May 5, 2020.