Code Red by Joy McCullough

Note: I occasionally accept review copies from the publisher. Posts written from review copies are labeled. All opinions are my own. Posts may contain affiliate links. I may receive compensation for any purchased items.

Code Red by Joy McCullough (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 2023) tackles and important issue: period poverty and menstrual inequality. I never had considered these issues in the USA! Menstruators (people who menstruate, which includes trans men, since they are biologically female) around the world do not have materials for managing periods, and so menstruation becomes a life-altering difficulty. Code Red takes this to the middle school level with a likeable character, Eden, who learns about these inequalities in her own community for the first time.

Eden has spent most of her life as an elite gymnast, on track for Olympic fame. After an injury makes Olympic dreams impossible, Eden decides to end her gymnastics training. Without hours of gymnastics, Eden finds herself adrift. Then, after an embarrassing school situation, a new friend helps Eden learn about the very real issue of period poverty. Along with her friend Maribel, Eden becomes quickly involved in the menstruation movement to support women menstruators by providing free tampons and pads to those who need them. She jumps into activism.

This is all an interesting and important concept for middle grader readers to learn about, but the entire book fell flat with me. Eden’s mother is a self-made CEO of a company (MySecret) that produces period products, like tampons and pads. MySecret would be negatively affected by Eden’s activism, since the proposal would tax large companies such as MySecret in order to fund pads and tampons in schools. Yet Eden gained no understanding of the impact of her activism on her mother, her mother’s company, and her own lifestyle. Eden’s upbringing has been quite privileged, and so in some respects, her quick shift to activism did not feel realistic. In all of her years doing gymnastics, had she never noticed how rich she was?

Eden’s relationship with her CEO mother also felt unrealistic to me. There was evidence of a relationship of some kind, such as time together on weekends, but the text claims they were very distant. Her mother is now suddenly interested in Eden, when apparently she never had been before. Meetings still keep her from engaging in Eden’s life, but she cares enough to track her phone to see her location. Further, in the end when her mother sees how devoted Eden is to the cause, she completely changes her business strategy to meet Eden’s desires. Their relationship was not clear and didn’t feel realistic, from beginning to end.

Finally, I did not like that Eden spends a good portion of the book working behind her mother’s back, without her permission, in order to continue her activism. Although these plot points set up a situation for Eden to make a difference and take charge in her new life, I’m not a fan of characters in middle grade books disobeying parents in order to do what they want. A tween reader is immature, and books like these may give them ideas that disobedience is okay when the cause is a good one. That’s not a decision I want my eleven-year-old daughter making. Not even my 13 year old!

I understands that the “ends justify the means.” Eden’s purpose is a good one. Middle grade readers will learn about a real issue and may be inspired by Eden’s activism. But Eden’s story felt like too much of a shift from where she had been to where she ended up. It’s hard to believe that her mother (even a not-very-attentive one) wouldn’t have conveyed to her daughter some of the business sense that Eden was now learning on her own, actively working against her mother’s company.

I voluntarily read and reviewed an advance review copy of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Reviewed on May 18, 2023

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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