Book Review by Kevin Wolf
In its own quiet way this graphic novel, Go with the Flow by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, provides an excellent teaching tool. Though it’s mainly for middle and high school students, I highly recommend it for all ages, genders and orientations. This graphic novel’s actions are in real time with all dates lining up with the 2019-2020 school year. It’s about friendship, menstruation, bullying, frustration with school administration, fighting back, and taking responsibility.
Go with the Flow revolves around four diverse characters Christine, Brit, and Abby, three friends from childhood, and the new kid to Hazelton High School, Sasha. Sasha who’s somewhat shy and just trying to fit in, early in the school year, has her first period at school. With tittering students whispering, Sasha feels watched and embarrassed but doesn’t know why. Abby—with Brit and Christine—approaches, putting her arm around Sasha’s shoulder, and says, “Hi, I’m Abby. Let’s make our way to the bathroom.” Abby’s friends, Christine and Brit, tell Sasha she’s having her period. As always occurs, Abby finds the dispenser is out of supplies (pads and tampons) and requires quarters (“Who carries quarters?”) to acquire them. Brit gives her sweatshirt to Sasha to tie around her waist to cover her stained clothes. And Abby has more pads in her locker, in case of just such an emergency. From this event and their honest discussion of their own periods, Sasha becomes fast friends with Abby, Brit and Christine.
Abby’s the activist who’s now very upset and becomes motivated to act. Her activism grows from the school administration’s disinterest in getting the pad/tampon dispensers in the girls’ bathrooms stocked and to consider making them free. Christine starts a blog (The Mean Magenta) and slowly makes connections with like voices in the online community. Will her activism go too far and ruin her friendship with the others? The reader will need to get this book to find out.
Abby and her friends’ actions is the central tale of Go with the Flow, but it’s not the only story. There’s bullying by popular track team players, boys being jerks in dating/studying, young friendship-love, and unresponsive school administrators. Like a lot of books for young adults, adults don’t play a big role, though the parents are generally positive in a behind-the-scenes way and school administrators are negative models. For example, Sasha’s mom learns of her daughter’s period from seeing the stained clothes in the laundry and rather than talking to her daughter, just provides supplies (pads and tampons) to Sasha the next morning. It’s up to Sasha to figure out how to use them.
There’s humor, especially in wordplay. Brit’s mom drives Brit to school and on the way picks up Christine, who rushes from sleep to pick up in seconds, and tells Brit “We told Abby we’d meet her before first period.”
Go with the Flow points out that periods don’t just happen to girls and women but also to transgender men and some gender nonconforming persons.
I’m very appreciative that the book has no need to mention some tropes that might carry importance to some menstruating persons but would only create controversy here; namely, Abrahamic religions’ role, virginity and the use of tampons, and the “girl to woman talk.” It’s much more valuable for those menstruating people to learn from each other, informed persons, and reliable resources. Under the author’s note at the book’s end, the authors write, “Because primarily women bleed, periods have historically been a taboo (and even untouchable) topic. Due to sexism that dates back to the dawn of time, periods have typically been seen as something to fear because they are associated with women. It is this stigma around menstruation that makes those of us who have periods discuss it in private, only with each other, and only once we have established that friendship is safe.” The reader could learn more at their website: themeanmagenta.com.
The graphic novel does fall short in providing some valuable information more readily. To its credit some details and resources are provided at the back of the book, but it still requires the reader to do research on even some basic information. For example, there’s no brief description of the biology or reasons for periods. It mentions several medical issues with no further explanation, like toxic shock syndrome[i] [sudden possibly fatal; caused by growth of certain bacteria; mainly from ”super-absorbent” tampons; < 20,000 people/year in U.S.] , adenomyosis[ii] [inner lining of uterus breaks thru uterine wall; perhaps severe cramps, bloating, heavy period; > 200,000/year U.S.], PCOS [polycystic ovary syndrome[iii]; very irregular periods, > 3 million/year U.S.], and fibroids[iv] [four types; uterine benign tumor; can cause miscarriage, infertility; > 3 million/year U.S.]. Go with the Flow does show one of the friends who’s periods are so long and painful she often has to be absent from school at some point during her period. It does give some information about endometriosis[v] (uterine tissue that grow outside the uterus; very painful; > 3 million/year U.S.) at the back of the book.
Fittingly, the primary color in this graphic work is shades of red from light pink to deep red. Layouts range from double page spread to multi-boxed panels on a single page. Background images are rare. Section breaks are borderless deep red solidly colored pages, typically with small iconic image as theme for upcoming section in the lower right corner. The artwork is excellent. Each section of Go with the Flow moves the story along. The main lesson from Go with the Flow is that periods are normal. It’s a very entertaining work, and should help readers understand what they, their friends, and family members might go through or how one might become an activist for Period Power!
[i] www.webmd.com/women/guide/understanding-toxic-shock-syndrome-basics on March 4, 2020
[iii] youngwomenshealth.org/2014/02/25/polycystic-ovary-syndrome/ on March 4, 2020
[iv] www.azuravascularcare.com/infoufe/fibroids-explained/ on March 4, 2020