Riley doesn’t feel as if she fits into the social world of her 5th grade class. No one seems to understand her and perhaps she doesn’t quite understand herself, either. She does know that she loves to draw, tell jokes, and watch the comedian Joy Powers. Riley hopes to attend art lessons, but her parents require that she improve her grades and stop getting in trouble at school. This might be tougher than it sounds with a class full of cliques and a teacher that seems to find fault with everything Riley does. Riley’s mom encourages her that if she reaches out, she’ll find people who get her. A girl named Cate recognizes Riley’s drawing talents and asks her to illustrate some stories for her. But Cate’s behavior seems to depend on whether mean girl Whitney is around. The new kid at school, Aaron, has two dads which Riley finds interesting, but Aaron gets upset when Riley accidentally lets her classmates know about Aaron’s dads before he was ready to tell them. When Riley cuts her hair short, Whitney spreads the rumor that Riley is a lesbian, and Riley starts to think her interest in comedian Joy Powers might be more like a crush. All of this makes for a very confusing time at school. Through many ups and downs and with the help of a supportive family, Riley comes through it all feeling as though people are starting to see who she truly is, and that she has friends who like her for her real self.
Author/illustrator Rachel Eliott includes an introductory letter to the reader explaining the semi-autobiographical nature of the story reflecting her own childhood love of Carol Burnett. She encourages readers to reach out and find others who get them, just as Riley does. This message is prevalent throughout the story. The Real Riley Mayes has strong messages of LGBTQIA acceptance, but beyond that, it speaks to the child who may feel different or unaccepted among their peers for any reason. The book’s conclusion, while not tying everything up too neatly, still encourages readers to seek out connections with others and to meet them half-way. Riley doesn’t find another student with a Joy Powers obsession, but she does find friends with whom she can share common ground. At first, Riley thinks Cate’s fascination with Nyan cats is weird, but she learns to understand it, just as Cate learns to understand her. In the end, Riley collaborates with both Cate and Aaron on a comic book about all of their interests, and this pulls other students in, as well.
The full-color illustrations in muted shades are reminiscent of a young girl’s drawings, with childlike whimsy and imagination. The illustrations contribute greatly to the humor of the book with an honest portrayal of Riley’s unusual clothing choices and many dream sequences, as well as some physical comedy in Riley’s real-world experiences. The reader can understand why Riley doesn’t quite fit in with the other girls at school, but she’s also shown with sympathy and endearing spunk.
The Real Riley Mayes is a good addition to youth and elementary school collections. It not only provides another title in an area where more representation is needed, but it’s also a story with a strong young adolescent at an age where many kids struggle. Riley has the courage to be herself, even when it would be much easier to pretend. Riley is a good model for young tween readers. The response of Riley’s family, while not always perfect, is a great example, as well. Hand this fun book to the kid who’s struggling to find themself, and to the kid who might be waiting to be their friend.
The Real Riley Mayes
By Rachel Elliott
Harper Collins, 2022
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)
Creator Representation: Lesbian
Character Representation: Lesbian