Riley Can’t Stop Crying
Riley Can’t Stop Crying
My little brother had just turned four, and he was crying. That’s all he ever did. In the morning he cried. In the afternoon he cried. While he was eating or sleeping, while it was sunny outside and while everyone else was looking happy and saying hello to one another, he was crying. (p. 5)
Poor little Riley just can’t stop crying, no matter what his sister, Regina, and his father try to do. They make funny faces, they sing funny songs and dance with Riley, they ask him directly what is happening, but nothing gets Riley to stop or helps him explain what’s wrong. Regina is pretty independent, but, as her father spends more time with Riley, he spends less time with her. As the family works through all of their emotional baggage, Regina gets an idea. She starts drawing pictures with Riley to try and figure out what’s wrong, but when Riley just draws a picture of himself and starts crying even harder, Regina and her father are unsure what it means. When Regina starts back to school and gets teased for being chubby, she begins, for the first time, to feel unhappy in her body. And that’s when it hits her, Riley is unhappy with himself for some reason. And then it all comes together: Riley is unhappy with the box he has been put in as a boy. He doesn’t like the toys and the clothes that boys are expected to like.
When Riley starts to play with rainbow ponies and magic wands and toolboxes and jelly spiders, and when he and Regina change their hair styles and Riley starts wearing the clothes he wants instead of the clothes he is expected to, other students, teachers, the principal, and people around town begin to look at them funny and get upset that they aren’t conforming to expectations. But together, as a family, they enjoy being themselves. They walk around town and smile at the people who give them funny looks. At school, their father has a talk with the principal, arguing that his children have a right to do what they want with their hair and clothes. And the more they do all of this, the more confident Riley becomes and the less he cries.
What I love about this book is that it does not try to make things simple. And even though it does utilize the very common “boys in dresses” trope to explore gender, it also looks at the fluidity of gender expression: “Riley began wearing his new clothes—the overalls, the skirt, the baseball shirt…. For accessories, I gave him some multicolored plastic bracelets and my superhero sunglasses. He looked very colorful and beautiful” (pp. 60-61). Stéphanie Boulay also does a beautiful job of keeping things from wrapping up in a neat little bow. Things are not perfect in the end, even though they are much better than before. “Of course, my little brother still cries sometimes…. I think this is because we can express some of ourselves on the outside, but there will always be complicated things left inside that we don’t know how to show” (p. 69).
More in-depth than an average picture book—and coming in at 80 pages, it’s more of a mix between early reader and picture book. Riley Can’t Stop Crying is a sensitive and nuanced exploration of gender and expression in a world that tries so hard to divide us all into easily categorized binaries. Agathe Bray-Bourret’s delightful, intensely colourful accompanying illustrations highlight the large-scale emotions felt by Riley and his sister and by most children as they learn to process the world around them and come to terms with who they are in that context. The imagery is also delightfully child-like and whimsical—one spread shows Regina and her father dancing, and their limbs are all flowing lines, like they have no bones, and their smiles are infectious. Similarly, the images of Riley wearing his skirt and colorful bracelets will delight young readers with his joyful expression.
A beautiful combination of text and image, exploring gender expression, fluidity, and the power of being yourself when the world prioritizes conformity. Riley Can’t Stop Crying is a worthy addition to any home, school, or public library collection!
Rob Bittner has a PhD in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (Simon Fraser University), and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He loves reading a wide range of literature but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.