When you’re a pre-teen, getting your first period is a weird, scary, uncomfortable, out-of-body experience, but what’s possibly even worse is trying to talk about it with your parents. (I still remember how after I told my mom I found blood in my underwear one day, she simply said, “Oh, you’ve got your period now,” and handed me a box of pads. We literally never talked about periods again.)

I definitely could have used something — anything! — to help me articulate how I felt about my period when I was 12. Luckily, kids these days will (hopefully) have an easier time of it thanks to 23-year-old Cass Clemmer’s new coloring book, The Adventures of Toni the Tampon.

Clemmer says the idea for Toni the Tampon was born out of a class they took in college, where Clemmer was challenged to create a product that addressed some kind of societal taboo in a creative new way. Clemmer had just read a paper on menstruation and was inspired to create a ‘zine that included sketches of menstrual cups and tampons as characters.

“From there, I took the idea and morphed it into my senior thesis as a part of a larger project on developing creative avenues to teach sexual and reproductive health education,” Clemmer says. “My goal was to create something that would encourage both kids and adults to take an active role in learning about their own bodies instead of learning to be ashamed and uncomfortable whenever topics like menstruation are raised.”

And that’s how the googly-eyed little character now known as Toni the Tampon was officially born. Since then, Toni’s become Internet-famous (Toni even has an Instagram!). We chatted with Clemmer, who’s currently based in the Congo, via email to learn a little bit more about their coloring book, what’s next for Toni the Tampon, why Clemmer wants to keep smashing the patriarchy, and more.

How did you develop each character (Toni the Tampon, Marina the Menstrual Cup)? What was your thought process around developing each individual character?
It’s actually kind of funny how much time I spent on what names and personalities to give tampons, pads, sponges, and menstrual cups. First, the purpose of including so many characters was to empower menstruators to choose whichever combination of products is best for their own needs, whether for environmental reasons, financial reasons, or just simple comfort.

For each menstrual product, I wanted to ensure representation in terms of gender identity and pronouns – Toni doesn’t use pronouns and has a gender neutral name, Marina and Patrice use she/her/hers, and Sebastian uses he/him/his. I wanted to make sure that menstruators of all genders were able to see themselves in my coloring book, and that I was creating as inclusive a space as possible. The names of each came from people close to me — for example, Marina is named after my incredible and fierce roommate — but their personalities came out as I spent days drawing each in different poses and emotions.

A friend of mine challenged me when she saw that, in my first draft, I had given my characters bowties and ties but not lipstick or eyelashes – it turns out that I was so worried about tying the definition of menstruation to femininity that I had left it out entirely. So, I decided to include more fluidity in their gender performances, from my characters’ props and emotions to their positions and facial décor. Overall, I worked hard to make the coloring book as inclusive as possible, while challenging the idea that only women menstruate or to be a woman you must menstruate.

How have your own views of menstruation changed over the years?
I used to be mortified by my own cycle – I grew up as a Baptist missionary kid and my conservative community was not at all open to any form of sex education. I remember feeling dirty and insecure during my period, and it wasn’t until I complained about how uncomfortable it was to wear a pad while playing soccer that I was given the option to use tampons. All of that shifted when I went to college and started studying gender studies and psychology, focusing primarily on strategies in reproductive health education. I studied the period taboo and its placement within a larger patriarchal system of oppression and started to recognize the need for gender-inclusive, kid-friendly tools to combat the shame that I myself was raised with.

Do you think society’s views about menstruation are changing?
It’s an incredible time to be a menstrual health educator. We’re seeing people of all ages and genders more open to talk about periods in a way I could never have imagined when I was younger. I think it helps that there are a lot of new media outlets, like Bustle, Mashable, and Buzzfeed, who are covering period games, educational tools, groups, and activists in a positive and encouraging light. Even though there are still a lot of people who think we should remain silent about menstruation — and to be sure, I’ve gotten my fair share of negative reactions about my own work to destigmatize periods — we are definitely moving in the right direction.

What’s the response been like from adults?
While I have definitely had some people who are upset that I want to introduce the topic of periods to kids and others who have lashed out at my decision to be inclusive of menstruators of all genders, most of the feedback has been positive. My favorite response so far has been that I’ve had moms (and dads!) write me messages telling me about their experiences introducing my book to their kids and how it opened up a whole conversation not only on periods but on body image, puberty, and sexual health! I’m over the moon that my coloring book has been a tangible, creative way for parents and teachers to start conversations that we too often see as uncomfortable.

What’s next for Toni the Tampon?
Toni the Tampon will continue having adventures and posting photos on Instagram in the next few months as I finish up my role here in eastern Congo, but I plan to return to the U.S. in June to push full throttle into creating more interactive educational tools for kids and adults to learn about reproductive health. I do have a new period project that is currently in the works, featuring Toni and the rest of the period pals, but it is still in the beginning stages, so stay tuned for more updates!

Check out The Adventures of Toni the Tampon on Amazon or at Clemmer’s e-store in CreateSpace, where you can use the code PYFT2Q4M for 25 percent off.

Alanna is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She's written for Shape, Fitness, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, Vivala.com, and more, and mostly spends her time now searching for the perfect coffee shop, writing about all things health and wellness, taking photos of her dog, and trying (and failing) to become a dedicated runner. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.