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Code Red

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About The Book

In the spirit of Judy Blume, this “character-driven, thought-provoking, often funny, and, above all, timely” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) middle grade novel celebrates finding yourself, making new friends, and standing up for what’s right as a girl becomes involved in menstrual activism.

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?


Chapter One Chapter One
This cannot be happening.

I must have zoned out during Mr. Trent’s ramble about the Battle of Gettysburg, and I can’t even blame it on an intense training session or a red-eye back from a gymnastics meet the night before. Last night all I did was stare at YouTube and try to ignore the fact that my friends were all on the way to Classics.

But when I catch up to the rest of the class, everyone is staring out the window at the school parking lot, probably alerted by Tyler, who is extremely excited about the “sweet ride” that just pulled in.

My mom’s sweet ride.

Sure enough, those are my mom’s red-soled high heels stepping out of the Porsche, my mom’s impeccable suit, perfectly coiffed hair, pristinely made-up face.

“Isn’t that your mom?” Kaia asks.

Of course it is. No one else’s mom looks like that here in the Seattle suburbs, where the moms go without makeup and let their hair go gray and wear their nice yoga pants to school functions.

School functions.

Even Mr. Trent is distracted by the car, and also maybe by the appearance of my instantly recognizable mother.

“Go ahead, Eden,” he says. He probably thinks someone died.

I’m starting to hope that’s why she’s here, even if I know it’s not.

The principal cornered me on the very first day of school to ask me to invite my mom to speak at Career Day. And of course she’d ask—my mom is a high-powered executive, a philanthropist, and one of the most recognizable faces in Seattle.

I said she’d be out of town.

It seemed plausible. Most people assume my mom travels all the time. But flying on airplanes is the one thing she can’t do. So she has people who travel for her, and she reigns supreme here in Seattle.

Kind of ironic that she married a pilot. But then maybe it makes sense why she divorced him.

Anyway, the principal didn’t know that about the airplane phobia, so I figured I was in the clear. Until a minute ago.

I hurry through the hallway toward the main office, trying to convince myself someone did die. Not Dad, obviously, and not Gran. No one in our family. Maybe, like, a distant cousin. She’d totally interrupt her workday to come pull me out of school and tell me a distant cousin had died.

That actually seems more plausible than interrupting her workday to come talk to a bunch of middle schoolers.

“Well, there she is,” Principal Grady says as I burst into the front office. I can’t read her face and honestly don’t even care if she knows I lied to her. I have much bigger problems right now.

“Mom? What are you doing here?”

It’s every bit as mortifying as I expected. It’s complete justification for my lie. I knew what it would mean for my mom to speak at Career Day. If anything, I underestimated the horror.

“So remember, girls,” she says, when her speech is finally over and I’m nothing but a puddle of embarrassment melding with the other mysterious stickiness on the auditorium floor, “when it’s your time of the month, you’ll never be caught by surprise if you keep a stash of MySecret period products in your locker!”

Over the past two years of doing online school to accommodate my training schedule, sometimes I’d think wistfully about regular-kid school things, like talent shows or field days. But clearly I left off in elementary school and couldn’t conceive of the horrors middle school would bring. I couldn’t conceive of my mother telling an auditorium full of my peers to fill their lockers with her company’s period products.

Last I saw them, none of my friends at the gym had even gotten their period yet.

My days of online school and rigid training schedules ended for good a couple of months ago when I overshot a handstand on the bars and tore my labrum—a part of my shoulder that was already dicey from years of repetitive stress. If I’m honest, my gymnastics career had been on shaky ground for a while.

I woke up one morning around Christmas and swore I was an inch taller than I’d been the day before. Leotards and warm-up pants are stretchy, but soon my shoes were too small.

Gran took me shopping, cheering that I was finally out of kid-sized shoes. But I wasn’t cheering. I knew what this meant. I just hoped no one else would notice.

They did. My coaches had to notice, because they had to teach me how to make adjustments for my growing body. When you suddenly shoot up three inches in a couple of months, it throws off your balance, your form, basically everything about your life as a gymnast.

I tried to shut out the chatter about how my growth would factor into my chances at the Hopes Classic. Control this moment, Coach Amy always said. Classics weren’t until the spring.

I tried not to think about how I was suddenly the tallest girl on the team. Most gymnasts are small, but there’ve been some taller girls in the elites. Svetlana Khorkina. Nastia Liukin.

Sure, they’re absolute prodigies and once-in-a-generation gymnasts, but why couldn’t that be me? Kyla Ross grew almost five inches and still managed to dominate college gymnastics after the Rio Olympics.

“You’ll never make it to the Olympics now,” my mom said. At my birthday dinner a few weeks after the injury. “There’s no point in continuing with gymnastics.”

“Heather!” Gran said. “Why would you say such a thing?”

“I’m only being realistic, Mom. I’m not saying she did anything wrong, but she doesn’t have the natural talent to overcome the height issue.”

I blinked back tears, which Gran noticed. Mom didn’t.

“Eden, honey,” Gran said. “Maybe she’s right. I don’t know. But you don’t have to be the best at something to enjoy doing it. You could keep doing gymnastics.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Mother,” Mom said. Because to her, there’s absolutely no point in doing something if you aren’t the best there ever was. “Maybe it’s not too late to pivot to ballet. Or modeling. Though you might not be tall enough for that.”

I do my best to ignore the snickers on my way to lunch after the rest of the parents talk about their normal jobs. Most of the girls avoid looking at me. Some of the boys do too.

But Graham Townsend knocks my shoulder walking past, half coughing, half speaking into his hand, “Bloody Mary.” His minions explode with laughter.

It doesn’t make any sense, but that doesn’t matter to guys like Graham. I roll my eyes and keep walking. In the cafeteria I sit at the edge of a table of girls I was kind of friends with in elementary school, even though my real friends were at the gym even then.

Two tables over, Graham shouts, “Oh, man! I got a paper cut. Hey, Eden, do you have anything to absorb the blood?”

Summer giggles, but her twin, Kaia, rolls her eyes. “Ignore him,” she says. Maybe to support me, or more likely so he won’t make a target of the whole table.

“I can’t believe you asked your mom to come.” Miranda flips her bangs out of her eyes. “Bold.”

Which might be a compliment, except it isn’t.

“I wouldn’t let our dad come, and he’s only a dentist,” Summer says.

I don’t say anything. Normally, I’d make small talk about their activities—Summer plays soccer, Miranda does theater, and Kaia’s in student government. But I don’t want anyone to ask me about gymnastics, so instead, I sit there and dream of transferring to a school where no one knows me (and more important, no one knows my mom).

About The Author

Photograph © Joy McCullough-Carranza

Joy McCullough writes books and plays from her home in the Seattle area, where she lives with her husband and two children. She is the author of the middle grade novels Across the Pond, A Field Guide to Getting LostNot Starring Zadie LouiseCode Red, and Basil & Dahlia, as well as the middle grade series Team Awkward, and the picture books Harriet’s Ruffled Feathers, Champ and Major: First Dogs, and The Story of a Book. Her debut novel Blood Water Paint was longlisted for the National Book Award and was a William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist. Visit her at

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (June 13, 2023)
  • Length: 240 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534496262
  • Ages: 8 - 99

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Raves and Reviews

* "In Code Red, a stirring and thought-provoking middle-grade novel by Joy McCullough, a privileged but lonely teen's eyes open to issues of social inequity and period poverty. . . With themes of social justice, classism, trans awareness, and family pressure, Code Red is likely to enlighten, delight, and maybe even inspire middle-grade readers, menstruators and non-menstruators alike."

– Shelf Awareness, STARRED REVIEW

"McCullough sheds light on issues of injustice, misogyny, and period poverty, as well as varying other challenges surrounding financial precarity, via Eden’s warmly rendered personal journey from laser-focused athlete to stalwart activist. Eden’s evolving relationship with her mother, and their opposing ideals, provide additional narrative heft."

Publishers Weekly

"McCullough tackles period poverty with her usual feminist flair, yet the conversations bring along readers who may be less familiar with issues around menstrual equity. Changemakers eager to go against the flow will appreciate the paths Eden explores to increased self-awareness, advocacy, and social activism."


* "Learning about period poverty (and poverty, period), Eden ponders ways to fund period products and gets a crash course in income inequality . . . Readers learn about these subjects alongside Eden in a well-integrated way and will root for the quirky, well-rounded characters who challenge outdated cultural taboos. Character-driven, thought-provoking, often funny, and, above all, timely."

Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List Selectio

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More books from this author: Joy McCullough