Summer Stacks: Playwright’s Newest Young Adult Novel Is Spot-On

Seattle-based playwright Joy McCullough is also a prolific novelist, writing books geared toward young adults on topics as wide-ranging as painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the young women of Shakespeare’s plays, and community theatre tech. Her latest is a thoughtful light read that might be just as illuminating for adults as it is appealing for younger readers

Read NWT’s interview with author Joy McCullough on an earlier work, Blood Water Paint, here


Code Red 

A story about periods celebrates youth finding their voice.   
By Joy McCullough
Simon & Schuster (Atheneum) (2023); 240 pages  


Oh, good. An ancient (albeit Millennial) dude writing on a young adult novel about periods. 

It’s true. But the unique traumatic-empowering twilight of junior high isn’t so far removed, no matter how long it’s been. And Joy McCullough’s latest novel, Code Red, brings back those memories in the best possible way: one that shows we’re not stuck there.

McCullough is well known around Seattle stages as a playwright: her Blood Water Paint premiered with Live Girls! Theater in 2015; Smoke and Dust premiered with Macha Theatre Works in 2018, followed by Macha’s impressive remounting of Blood Water Paint in 2019 (see NWT’s review here); and the cheekily-titled La Tofana’s Poison Emporium premiered, again with Macha, last fall (see NWT’s review here). In a unique playwright/director team, Amy Poisson directed all four of them.

Prolific on stage, McCullough is wider-reaching as a novelist, and specifically as a writer for younger readers. Indeed, in turning Blood Water Paint into book form — the play preceded the best-selling young adult novel (2018) — McCullough explained that it was precisely the desire to get a much-buried history out to a younger, wider audience. Blood Water Paint envisions the works of the great early Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi as indelibly tied to the histories of some of her most famous subjects, in Judith Slaying Holofernes and Susanna and the Elders. A woman painting women, Gentileschi could capture a depth of her subjects — features, expressions, daring deeds — in a way that none of her (male) contemporaries could manage. Oh, and the gore; justice flowed in blood in some of Gentileschi’s best-known works.

It’s a much different blood flow in Code Red, a novel about periods. Well, sort of. The story centers on a wide-ranging group of middle- and high school students who coalesce around a specific cause: making tampons and pads available to all who need them, for free. And it does a great job of educating, whether that’s to youth with questions they don’t know how to ask or men who’ve never needed (or bothered) to find out.

But McCullough’s stage tales are rarely about just one thing, and her latest novel is no different. Woven throughout are young people challenging convention, finding their own voices, overcoming barriers, and finding a new path when their former calling turns to smoke and dust. (Eden, the central character, finds herself without close friends or any sense of purpose when her path as an elite gymnast is lost to injury.) A young trans man reminds that people with periods aren’t only girls and women. A keen decades-ago critique by Gloria Steinem (whom a character reveres comically as “this old feminist lady”) observes that period talk wouldn’t be taboo if a lot more men did have them.

Code Red is an updated, youthful feminist critique. And it’s all wrapped up in a story that’s fun to read, with characters who are easy to like, who are on outward-looking missions that appeal to the civic-minded while keeping the focus on the humans, the humor, and the heart. And, for us Seattleites, the tale brings plenty of local references, too: from an awkwardly-timed setting at Black Coffee Northwest (which closed its shop in June, though a new one is said to be on the way) to a serendipitous mention of the Bathhouse Theater (the venue of Seattle Public Theater, which Poisson, longtime director for McCullough’s plays, was just selected to helm).

No doubt McCullough’s latest work will be accused of pushing “wokeness” to young audiences. In fact, as Code Red ably illustrates, it’s frequently the youth leading the charge. At a time when the freedom of youth to ask, explore, and form their own identities is under headline-grabbing attack after attack, Code Red‘s words of support come not a moment too soon.


Code Red is available at booksellers, including Third Place Books ($18); book info here

Joy McCullough appears on 9/22 at Third Place Books (Ravenna) with Hannah V. Sawyerr on Sawyerr’s new young adult novel, All the Fighting Parts. Admission is free; reserve here

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.