Ride the Wave! A Code Red Interview with Joy McCullough
Could the timing have been better? If so, it’s hard to figure out how. A month and a half ago Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret premiered for the first time as a cinematic masterpiece (and I mean that sincerely) and suddenly we had menstruation being openly discussed in a nationwide film in a serious way. Simultaneously, my library, like many around the country, was suddenly inundated with holds on the Judy Blume classic.
Enter, Code Red.
Published TODAY (timely, yes?) the book is not the first contemporary title to broach the topic of menstruation since Margaret. After all, if you’ve been paying attention then I’m sure you’ve enjoyed the graphic novel Go With the Flow or this year’s short story collection Calling the Moon. Still, a sustained narrative in a novel for kids is not as common as you might hope.
Here’s the description:
“Ever since a career-ending injury, former elite gymnast Eden has been feeling lost. To add insult to actual injury, her mom has been invited to present at her middle school’s career day, which would be fine except Mom’s company produces period products like pads and tampons. Having the whole school hear about it is total humiliation. And when Eden gets into a fight with a boy who won’t stop mocking her for it, she and her classmate Maribel both end up getting suspended.
Mom’s corporate executive job means she doesn’t have time to look after Eden while she’s suspended, so Eden is sent to volunteer at the food bank Maribel’s mom runs. There, she meets new friends who open her eyes to period poverty, the struggle that low-income people with periods have trying to afford menstrual products. Eden even meets a boy who gets periods. Witnessing how people fight for fair treatment inspires Eden to join the advocacy work.
But sewing pads to donate and pushing for free access to period products puts Eden at odds with her mom. Even so, Eden’s determined to hold onto the one thing that’s ignited her passion and drive since gymnastics. Can she stand her ground and make a real difference?”
With Kirkus granting it a star and Publishers Weekly saying the book, “sheds light on issues of injustice, misogyny, and period poverty, as well as varying other challenges surrounding financial precarity”, it was a treat to get to talk with author Joy McCullough.
Betsy Bird: Joy! Thank you so much for joining me today. CODE RED is tapping into this need for increased menstrual activist literature for kids that’s been sorely lacking for a while. Can you tell us a little bit about where this book came from? What inspired you to write it in the first place?
Joy McCullough: My editor at Atheneum, Reka Simonsen, knew that I like to sew, and that my focus is on feminist stories. Because of those things, she mentioned to me the organization Days for Girls, and that she thought there might be a story there. Days for Girls is a non-profit that organizes crafters to make cloth menstrual pads, and then distributes them in under-resourced countries around the world. This is incredible work! But there were a couple reasons I bounced off of it and landed where I did with Code Red. I didn’t want to write a story of an American girl being a white savior to people in other countries, especially when period poverty is a problem right here in the United States. I also wanted to make sure the world of my story was trans-inclusive and recognized that there are some boys who menstruate.
BB: Oh, GOOD show!! Now it seems to me that CODE RED would pair especially well with the graphic novel GO WITH THE FLOW by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann. In both cases you have kids able to organize and advocate for others in a very realistic way. Was that an element of the book from the start or did you add it to the book later as you revised?
JM: I love Go With The Flow! It’s recommended in the additional resources for Code Red, in fact. Yes, Eden’s activism was a part of the story from the earliest drafts. She is suspended early in the book, and ends up spending that week of suspension at the food bank a classmate’s mother runs. From there she learns about period poverty. She is in limbo, having recently had an elite gymnastics career cut short by injury and she is looking for something to feel passionately about. Originally I thought her activism would be toward getting menstrual products provided in schools. Then I was a tiny bit dismayed to learn a bill had just passed in Washington requiring that. (Which is wonderful! But caused a story problem for me!) Then when I talked to a local menstrual equity activist, she explained to me that while the supplies are required in schools, the bill doesn’t fund them. Like schools have extra money lying around to fulfill that requirement! So that’s where I channeled Eden’s drive.
BB: Doggone legislatures doing the right thing! Good save, though. So what kind of research did you do for the book? As far as I can recall, I don’t remember there being any of this information readily available when I was a kid, and certainly not in books. Where did you look for resources?
JM: No, I’m in my mid-forties and there definitely wasn’t info like this available when I was growing up! But thankfully, a lot has changed. I read a number of really excellent books for research, including Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement, by Nadya Okamoto, who became a menstrual equity activist as a teen. I also talked to Kate Hawk-Ritenauer, who runs Seattle T2P2 (www.seattlet2p2.org), a local organization that works to supply menstrual products to those who need them. There’s also a wonderful documentary called Period. End of Sentence.
BB: Was there anything you wanted to include in this book but weren’t able to for one reason or another?
JM: No, not really! I have a wonderful editor in Reka, and I am so grateful that everyone at Atheneum has been completely supportive of the activism and trans-inclusiveness and frankly, the pads all over the cover!
BB: Oh yes! I almost missed those. How would you advise the kids that read this book and want to get involved in similar activism in their own communities?
JM: First, there’s a section at the back of the book that addresses this! A great place to start, though, is making sure menstrual products are provided at your schools. As of this writing, they are only required in seven states (and, like Washington, that requirement may not even fund them). So organizing fund-raisers or product drives for schools to be able to offer supplies is a great place for kids to start. I also suggest that on a personal level, kids who don’t menstruate could keep a few pads or tampons in their locker or backpack and let their friends who menstruate know they’ve got them, if they need them. Any way we can destigmatize this totally normal bodily function that happens to half the population regularly is helpful!
BB: Awesome. Finally, what else are you working on these days? What do you have coming out next?
JM: My next release is a picture book called The Story of a Book, with gorgeous illustrations by Devon Holzwarth, which comes out on August 29th! It follows the life of a book from brand new to extremely well-loved and everyone who reads it along the way.
Huge thanks to Joy for taking the time to answer my questions today. Thanks too to Lindsey Ferris and the folks at Simon & Schuster for their help. Code Red is out today, so take a hike over to your local independent bookstore or library to grab yourself a copy!
Filed under: Interviews
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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