Period Fiction: 2 Middle Grade Books About Menstruation and the Politics Beyond It

One of the only books about menstruation that I remember reading as a kid was “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.” I expect this is the case for a number of others, Generation X or not. The 1970 Judy Blume book became famous for its frank, unapologetic depiction of preteen girls on the verge or in the midst of puberty. As I write this, a film version, starring, among others, Rachel McAdams, has been released in theaters to great critical response.

The appearance of the book’s protagonist, Margaret Simon, on the big screen makes you wonder what took Hollywood so long to turn to one of the most famous of Blume’s books. I strongly suspect that the male executives who make up, and take up, most of Hollywood had a lot to do with it: Female bodies, when not idealized or sexualized, are often considered icky, especially with regard to menstruation and childbirth.

Times are changing, of course, on all fronts. There is now a robust discussion about menopause, which seems to have gone mainstream, including in The New York Times Magazine.

And there are two books out for young readers on the subject of periods, seen through the eyes of a multitude of protagonists, who themselves contain, well, multitudes.

The first, CALLING THE MOON: 16 Period Stories From BIPOC Authors (Candlewick, 368 pp., $22.99, ages 10 and up), is an anthology of short stories and prose poems. Edited by Aida Salazar and Yamile Saied Mendez, both authors of books for children and young adults, “Calling the Moon” highlights the work of 16 authors of color and features protagonists from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities, gender identities, economic classes and ages.

The title “Calling the Moon” is a reference to menstruation, which usually happens once a month and which some of the anthology’s characters call a moon or luna. In putting together the anthology, Salazar and Mendez say in an editors’ note, they wanted to address the lack of diversity in literature on this topic as well as undo negative assumptions. They succeeded. Their 368-page volume focuses on not just the experience of periods but the onset of them (menarche). There’s Penny, who gets her period on a class trip. Another character starts hers while on the soccer field. And even though, in some instances, menarche is cause for brief concern among the characters — it usually comes out of nowhere — it’s also a reason for celebration.

The writers and characters in “Calling the Moon” are open, unflinching and even “gross” as they describe the sometimes disorienting experience of having one’s first period: “I want to hear everything she knows about blood, wombs, moods — without leaving out any of the gory details,” one protagonist says. Some of the characters are overtaken by physical pain or confused by the sight of the brown, sticky substance that’s common during first periods. (Menstrual blood is not always red.) Many of the young characters are quick-thinking, improvising ways to handle an unexpected emergence of blood, including the wadding up of pieces of toilet paper as a method of absorption. (I suspect that almost anyone who has had their period can relate to this.)

A little less relatable, to me at least, is Joy McCullough’s CODE RED (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 240 pp., $17.99, ages 8 and up). The novel moves along briskly and, like many stories in “Calling the Moon,” is narrated in the first person, this time by a wealthy, talented young gymnast named Eden, but the plot sometimes seems contrived for maximum drama, not believability. (Eden’s mother is the hard-charging, emotionally remote chief executive of a successful menstruation product company who is also resistant to donating menstrual supplies to the food pantry and community center at which her daughter volunteers, Casa Esperanza.)

There’s another issue: some of the language. As is the case with “Calling the Moon,” McCullough makes a sustained effort to present an inclusive work with diverse characters and to reflect younger generations’ talent for using social media and digital vocabulary in the service of community activism. (There’s one particularly memorable scene in which a group of students come together to raise awareness about the underprivileged.) But I blanched at her use of the word “menstruators” to encompass people who have periods but don’t identify as female. Although I understand the impulse behind it, the word feels clinical and reductive, a term in which the verb becomes the subject. I have to think that we can come up with something else, maybe simply “people who have periods.”

But back to the book itself: Despite McCullough’s sometimes self-conscious attempts to create conflict, she does know how to spin a story with momentum, and, like the authors in “Calling the Moon,” features the stories of a variety of people, speaking more than one language, hailing from different economic backgrounds, embodying various gender identities and representing assorted points of view. Some of the best characters are those of the Miller-Paz family, which Eden meets after one of the daughters, Maribel, intervenes and defends Eden from a school bully. The Miller-Pazes are, unlike Eden’s own family, warm and boisterous, though with their own tensions and complications. Eden and Maribel begin to drift apart after Eden becomes close to Maribel’s mother, Silvia, and one of her older sisters.

Like I said, things are a bit complicated. But what a difference a few decades make. Now, 35 to 40 years after I first read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” it’s heartening that there is a new generation of writers that is confidently addressing the ways in which the human body can both delight and confuse, especially during puberty. Even so, I worry that “Code Red” and “Calling the Moon” will be received with disgust by censorious, squeamish legislators and school boards that will consider the very features that make these books special — their forthrightness about bodily functions, their inclusiveness of identities — as issues to attack. (“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was banned by just these sorts of gatekeepers when it came out.) It’s enough to make a reader see red.

Anna Holmes is a writer and the founder of the website Jezebel.

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