By Maureen Tai, 10 March 2020
“Talking about periods is the first step to taking that period power back.” – Abby
I was 10. I remember cycling to our neighbourhood kedai runcit (convenience store) in Ipoh, the sleepy town in Malaysia where I grew up. I had to pick up some freshly squeezed coconut milk, a loaf of Sunshine bread and a box of Kotex sanitary pads. The Ah Soh at the store handed me the items, but insisted on wrapping up the box of pads with newspaper before I could leave. I didn’t want to miss the start of Gilligan’s Island so I said I didn’t care if it was wrapped or not. “Shameful mah!” she whispered, pushing the parcel into my hands as if it were contraband. For many years afterwards, her words echoed in my ears every time I went to buy pads, by then for my own use, and my cheeks would burn.I didn’t discover Go With The Flow, a upper-middle grade graphic novel about menstruation. Anna did, on one of our forays into a bookstore in KL. Since she wasn’t able to put it down, I bought it.
Abby, Christine and Brit are three likeable and spirited high-schoolers with very different looks and personalities. Abby, a headstrong and fiery feminist, is a talented artist on a mission. Christine is blond and rake thin, her sarcastic humour and devil-may care attitude concealing a deep secret. Brit is the brainiac of the trio, warm-hearted and caring but burdened by a debilitating physical condition that she doesn’t understand. Naturally, the three are best friends.
A new girl at school, Sasha, becomes the fourth member of the group after she unknowingly gets her first period at school, every teen girl’s nightmare scenario. The trio rescue Sasha from the unkind ridicule of the other high schoolers, whisking her to the safety of the girls’ bathroom where Sasha is given a crash course in periods. Abby is infuriated that the sanitary pad vending machines in the bathrooms are always empty. She launches into a list of injustices faced by women simply because of their biology as Christine and Brit share their period experiences with Sasha to help her get over her anxiety and humiliation. “We’ve got your back. And your front,” Christine whispers reassuring into Sasha’s ear. It’s the start of a wonderful new friendship, and all because of a period.
As we turn the pages, the year progresses. We follow the girls as they navigate the complications of algebra, the mysterious workings of the tampon, the blushes of first love and the challenges of trying to change societal attitudes towards menstruation. Interspersed with the bold and vivid red-toned illustrations are pages from Abby’s blog, The Mean Magenta: A blog about menstruation, where Abby shares her research into the history of periods and information on inspirational female heroes, and updates her followers on her activism. However, a particularly bold move backfires on Abby, earning her a suspension from school and worst of all, jeopardising her friendship with Sasha, Christine and Brit.
It wouldn’t be a children’s book if it didn’t end on a happy note. However, the most satisfying result of reading Go With The Flow is knowing that this is the most unabashedly candid, refreshingly honest and thoroughly relatable children’s book about periods and its attendant socio-economic issues that we’ve ever read. The story is well paced, with enough character development to make you feel a warm kinship with the girls and enough information to spur you to action to fight against the unjustifiable stigma that accompanies periods. It is the coming-of-age-friendship-and-menstruation guide that I wish I had had when I was young. For one, I would have been brave enough to rip the newspaper wrapping off that box of pads.
For ages 10 and above.