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The Big Picture, a regular Bulletin feature both on-line and off, is an in-depth look at selected new titles and trends. See the archive for selections from previous months.

Fraustino, Lisa Rowe. Don't Cramp My Style: Stories about That Time of the Month.
Simon, 2004 295p
ISBN 0-689-85882-5 $15.95
Gr. 9-12

Menarche ushers young girls into complex new worlds of strange and heightened emotions. Menstruating girls enter a worldwide community of women, who, as Michelle H. Martin notes in her introduction to this collection of "period" pieces, need to "learn to be at home in their menstruating bodies." The stories assembled here welcome the reader to girlfriend hour, complete with laughter, tears, and lots of affirmative nods. They extend and turn into narrative art the stories girls have always told in hushed voices on playgrounds, on the phone, to their diaries, and in their prayers.

The mild disgust that can accompany menstruation dissolves into humor in Pat Brisson's "Taking Care of Things." Set in a contemporary high school, this story highlights both the absurdity and the business-as-usual ordinariness of periods that always seem to come at the most inconvenient times, as the main character has to cope with trying to impress the editor of her school newspaper, managing a run-in with her crush, and being unable to find a bathroom when she really needs one, all at the same time. Periods don't only cause uncomfortable moments for girls, either. David Lubar's "The Heroic Quest of Douglas McGawain" treats a guy's experience when he makes the mistake of asking his girlfriend if she wants anything from the store besides soda. Faced with the bewildering array of tampon sizes and brands, and precipitously abandoned by his best friend in his hour of need, Douglas McGawain emerges as an intrepid remnant of all-but-bygone chivalry.

The fears (and sometimes dangers) of starting your period when you aren't ready to grow up are featured in Alice McGill's "Moon Time Child," the story of a slave girl sold to be a breeder, and Joan Elizabeth Goodman's "The Czarevna of Muscovy," whose main character knows that the onset of menses will signal her confinement not only to the Kremlin, but to marriage as well. In both stories, the girls are victims of systems that treat women as hostages to their bodies, and yet both girls manage to find a way to negotiate their freedom, either literally or imaginatively. Han Nolan's young protagonist in "Maroon" doesn't fare so well. She learns too young about teen pregnancy and do-it-yourself abortions and responds by trying to starve herself in a futile attempt to stave off periods, breasts, and growing older.

Then there are the opposite fears of periods that won't come when you want them to, as in Linda Oatman High's "The Uterus Fairy," a lighthearted tale about a mother's hysterectomy and a daughter's pregnancy scare. Both mother and daughter find themselves missing their periods in different ways and discover that a "ride on the cotton bicycle" isn't so bad after all, considering the alternatives. Pesky emotional and technical problems like PMS and sex during your period are highlighted in Joyce MacDonald's "Transfusion," a subtle story about irrational anger and its rational causes, and Julie Stockler's "Losing It," a not-at-all subtle story about not quite knowing how to tell the strange guy with whom you find yourself naked in a sleeping bag that you're on your period. The solace that the company of women and cultural tradition can provide finds expression in Dianne Ochiltree's "The Women's House," about the traditions of menstruation and birth among the Lenni-Lenapes, and Deborah Heiligman's "Ritual Purity," where a troubled girl finds healing in the cleansing rituals of Orthodox Judaism.

The standout piece in the volume is Fraustino's own "Sleeping Beauty," a darkly compelling tale of a girl whose ambition and perfectionism lead her to believe that she can ignore the cycles of her body. Inspired by a true story about a girl found dead in a college bathroom after giving birth and given folkloric resonance through an analogy with Sleeping Beauty, this cautionary tale haunts the others, reminding readers that however they may feel about their periods, they ignore their bodies to their peril.
A tone of knowingness and the implicit camaraderie of the already initiated permeate these stories, and some of the darker entries place quite sophisticated demands on readers as they explore issues of sexuality and its various effects on girls with admirable frankness and clarity. Hence, this is not a warm-hearted, chicken-soupy text to give to prepubescent girls or even first-timers, though it is a strangely welcoming one for more mature readers. The far-reaching range of emotion captured by these stories synchronizes with the complexities of feeling that accompany girls' sometimes complicated experience of menstruation. Taken as a whole, the anthology effectively mirrors the blend of mystery, horror, humor, and community that surrounds menstruation-it's a can't-miss with older readers.

Karen Coats, Reviewer

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Cover illustration from Don't Cramp My Style: Stories about That Time of the Month ©2004 by Image Source/Picture Quest.

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This page was last updated on May 1, 2004.