Review of the Day: Go With the Flow by Lily Williams, ill. Karen Schneemann
The nice thing about children’s literature is that it often replicates, on a smaller scale, themes and topics that you’ve find in more mature fare. Take, if you will, the protest novel. Which is to say, a novel in which the kids in the book decide to take a stand against an injustice. Examples that come immediately to mind vary from the fluffy (Frindle and The Homework Strike) to slightly more serious topics ( The Day They Came to Arrest the Book). For a long time that was pretty much as far as a book for children would go when it came to civil disobedience. Then came the election of 2016, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Women’s March, and any number of other factors that suddenly made those old “protest novels” look downright quaint. Since that time we’ve had book stunners like A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, and other titles in the vein of The Hate U Give. But, Go With the Flow is different. Unusual. And it exhibits a kind of bravery, both on the part of the creators and, to a certain extent, the publisher, that is rather rare. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve been missing until it’s arrived. I didn’t know I needed a graphic novel for kids on period parity. And now, here we are.
What’s your worst nightmare? There are so many to pick and choose between. How about the one where you get your period one day at school while wearing white pants and it feels like EVERYONE notices? Sasha’s worried enough about making friends at her new school and now this? Fortunately, her misfortune leads to meeting three amazing girls. Abby, Brit, and Christine are exactly the kinds of friends you wish you had in high school. They’re smart, funny, and passionate. Abby in particular sees Sasha’s problem and then starts to notice other issues. Why are the school’s machines in the bathrooms always empty of tampons and pads? What are kids who don’t have access to a lot of money supposed to do when they need them? Why doesn’t the administration care? What starts out as an annoyance quickly grows into a cause, but how do you get the world to notice something it simply doesn’t want to see?
Let’s talk menstruation. I know I haven’t. In the field of children’s literature, if it gets mentioned then it’s a side note or a joke. Feeling cramps tends to be paired with the idea that the heroine is just stressing out about something else. I guess the most famous book for kids to feature periods is Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, particularly since Judy Blume had to update the sanitary napkin belt info in its more recent reprints. Even so, I can say with certainty that the idea of linking menstruation to the basic human right of having access to pads and tampons struck me as practically revolutionary. So too is the idea of turning this not into a nonfiction middle grade book (which would be the usual route) but a fun story set between four friends. You can teach the nonfiction book lovers all day long and they’ll howl for more, but comic fans? By the time they realize what the subject matter is, it’ll be too late. They’ll be hooked and (gasp!) learning. Such a smart battle strategy.
The part of this that struck me as particularly keen, however, was that the book is not merely about raising the awareness of the existence of menstruation and the ways in which it can physically hurt those girls and women with endometriosis, adenomyosis, PCOS, and fibroids, but also how Williams ties all this into economic disparities. She makes the choice not to make any of the starring girls in this book lower income. They could afford those 50-cent tampons (if the bathrooms ever bothered to stock them). And everyone but Abby is fairly fine with this fact. She’s the only one consistently bothered that “there are kids here who can’t even afford lunch… How can they afford proper sanitary items for their periods if they cannot afford lunch?” Every woman I know has been in a bathroom where the tampon and pad machine was empty or, more often the case, missing entirely. And like Abby points out, who even carries around quarters all the time? This is one of those rare books that raises awareness not simply for the kids reading it but the parents, teachers, and librarians that find it as well. I’ll say it. I felt smarter after reading it.
Many of us have had that friend like Abby. The one who cares so much about a cause that she brings it up in every conceivable situation (“But have you guys heard about Toxic Shock Syndrome?”) and then plunges forward with bold plans to right the wrongs of the world without thinking about how her choices might affect people closer to home. The authors make the opposition she faces shudderingly believable. When the principal says to her, “It’s not like the boys get free jock itch cream,” it can be mighty hard not to start screaming at the page. Now the real trick to the book, to a certain extent, comes when Abby writes a blog post and it goes viral. I think we’ve seen this plot twist before, and often it’s unbelievable. Due to the nature of the subject matter, I didn’t have that hard a time believing that Abby’s story would catch national attention … except that the blog post doesn’t appear to show any images from the shocking display she made in the school hallways. I can understand why, from a plot perspective, she didn’t include photos of her act of disobedience, but the inclusion of a photo or two in the viral post would have made it MUCH more believable.
So is it fun to read? I mean, face the facts, when I tell you I found this great book on menstruation rights, you’re not going to pick it up hoping for a chucklefest. That’s why it’s such a relief to discover that the book knows how to make a good joke. Long story short, it is very difficult not to fall in love with a comic that contains the line, “WALK AWAY! Ya big ol’ fart bag!” Or to enjoy it when Brit tells everyone that in the event that she can’t have kids, Sasha volunteered to have her children for her. Quoth Christine, “Totally normal high school thoughts.” Or, quite frankly, the sheer number of period puns. Interestingly, the Acknowledgments at the back are where some of the most egregious double entendres lurk. You gotta love a book that ends copious praise with the sentence, “You are all bloody awesome!” Hey, man. Commit to the bit.
In children’s book publishing there’s a general rule out there regarding the age of characters in a book versus the readership. Long story short, if the kids in your book are teenagers then the book will not and cannot be marketed to kids. This rule applies to adult main characters as well, unless they are furry animals (don’t ask). So it was with great surprise that I found the characters in this book weren’t the usual middle school troupe but out and out high schoolers. Wow! I mean, kids love reading books about teens, but rarely are they allowed specifically to do so. And the subject matter being what it is, this book is going to get some adults upset. Sure it is. I mean, it’s about menstruation. There are adults out there that would tell you with a straight face that kids don’t need to know about that stuff when they MOST certainly do! What Go With the Flow does is show not just a range of body types, orientations, races, and belief systems, but it also shows how differently menstruation affects one person or another. If you have kids suffering seriously from cramps, this book is going to offer them some much needed information. They’re going to need to know this and know it early. Honestly, there’s only one moment in the book that I actually found more in the YA sphere of things than anything else. In one scene Christine is studying with a swimming doofus named Ted. Ted digs Christine (Christine does not dig Ted) and as she preps for studying he hops onto the couch and then nonchalantly places a pillow over his crotch. It’s not a big obvious move but its visible enough that I raised one of my eyebrows a good quarter inch higher than its normal resting position. I wouldn’t kick this book out of the kids section, but it sure seemed like a weird thing to just drop in the book casually like that.
Alright. Enough of all that. Art time. This book is coming out of the gate swinging. Sometimes you can have a hard time following the narrative thread of a debut graphic novelist. Not here. Panels connect and flow expertly. But even more impressive to my mind is the color scheme. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for you to say that it’s red. Red red red red red. Different shades, you betcha, but this isn’t one of those books where the color scheme shifts or adds a new color at a significant point in the proceedings. This drawing style is easygoing and enticing. Any fan of Raina Telgemeier, Shannon Hale, etc. is going to see this cover, completely miss the double meaning behind the title and the subtitle, and want to pick this up for a read. I should know. I’m basically that reader myself.
When an author and artist release their book into the world, they don’t know what effect it may make on the general populace. In the back of this book is information on “How to be a Period Activist.” To a large extent Go With the Flow aims to remove the stigma surrounding periods, but I recall middle and high school really well. The girls who read this book and take it upon themselves to follow in its wake are honestly going to be extraordinary humans. Kids are less afraid these days to speak out and pursue various forms of activism, but this takes it to a whole other level. It opens you up to a new kind of personal shame and embarrassment hitherto unexplored. To those girls that read this book, embrace this book, learn from this book, and use this book, I salute you. And to the women that wrote this book and illustrated this book, I bow to you. You never know what you never know. Now though? No more excuses. This book is one in a million.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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