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YA Book Club: Caroline B Cooney's 'The Face on the Milk Carton'

By Kate Hudson | Books | April 25, 2019 |

By Kate Hudson | Books | April 25, 2019 |


This book, man. This book. So I’ve covered it a bit at Pajiba, but I was raised Mormon. Which meant that my mom kind of, sort of, paid attention when church leaders told her that certain pop culture things were bad for her children. She very half-heartedly tried to make my oldest brother stop playing Dungeons & Dragons at some point in our childhood because some random man in authority at the church put out an edict that it was bad for you. That ban in our house lasted all of 5 minutes, because — bless my mother — the amount of effort it would require for her to police us over content choices was far more than she was willing to devote away from her interests, which were mainly eating big bowls of salad and reading books in the living room while calling out, occasionally, for one of us to bring her the sip sip (diet coke) from the garage.

So for the reasons above, I was told that I couldn’t read The Face on the Milk Carton because someone at church said it was inappropriate for children (probs because of the sexual overtones, which we’ll get to in a minute.) So obviously I checked the book out as soon as I could from the local library because libraries are fantastic, which obviously my mom drove me to and didn’t say anything when she saw me bring it home. I’m pretty sure she had forgotten she said no to this book, initially. (Side note: by 12, my mom had all but given up on policing my reading material and even took me to the book store to buy “Valley of the Dolls,” which remains the single most influential book I’ve ever read, in my life, but we’ll cover that next week. All of May’s picks will be devoted to the books we read as kids but probably shouldn’t have. Looking at you, V.C. Andrews!)

Anyway, like basically every book we cover here, it’s been a while since I read this last, and I found it riveting on this reread. So what’s it about?

Janie Johnson is, in her mind, an unforgivably boring 15-year old, almost 16-year old, girl. She goes so far as to try to make her name more memorable, daydreaming variations on spellings, and adding in additional letters to give it pizazz (“Jayne Johnstone” is a particular favorite of hers.) That all changes when one day, while eating lunch with her friends in the cafeteria, she sees a little girl’s face on a milk carton. She’s been missing for 12 years. Her name is Jennie Spring, and Janie thinks that she’s her—and spoilers, friends—she’s right, but Janie doesn’t know that yet. What Janie does know is that she looks nothing like her parents, and it’s making her suspicious.

So, Janie starts to unravel in her life. She’s not sleeping, she’s not eating, and she’s withdrawing away from her friends—all the while having sudden flashbacks of long-repressed memories of what she thinks was her kidnapping. She’s snapping at her parents, and she’s living in silent misery, so you know, typical teenage stuff. That all changes when the sexy boy next door, Reeve, gets Janie to confide in him that she thinks she was kidnapped as a child.

Ultimately Janie decides to go looking for answers after she finds only more mysteries in her parent’s attic—mainly, an old trunk filled with papers related to a girl named “Hannah,” and twist—a dress that looks like precisely what Jennie Spring was wearing in her missing picture on the milk carton.

Janie decides to confront her parents, who tell her the most bats*it insane yarn-wall conspiracy story I have ever had the pleasure of reading in a book that isn’t specifically a race to the bottom in camp and supernatural bulls*it. It goes like this: Janie’s parents had a daughter named Hannah, and Hannah was OK, but not great, unlike Janie. Long story short, Hannah got involved in a Hare Krishna cult and had a daughter, Janie, that she showed up with on the doorstep with one day, as you do. Hannah, after trying to live a normal life with her parents and “daughter,” felt the siren song of cult life beckoning her once more, and up and left Janie with her parents. Only Janie’s (grand)parents know what’s up with a cult, and figured Janie’s cult-daddy would come looking for her at some point, so they change their last name (from Javensen to Johnson so as to not be as conspicuous) and move around a lot—and cut off all contact with Hannah in order to keep Janie safe …and now you know the rest of the story.

So, Janie may be a little on edge, and but at least she’s not an idiot. So, she accepts her parent’s story at face value for about 5 minutes, and then the doubts creep in, again. Janie lives in Connecticut. Jennie lived in New Jersey. So the day after the crazy-bananapants story her parents told her, she and Reeve skip school and drive to New Jersey to try to track down the Spring family. They find them, and you guessed it—the entire brood looks like Janie. Now Janie all but knows her parents aren’t her real family, and that at least biologically, she belongs to this family.

All the while this is going on, Reeve and Janie begin to date and debate when and where to have sex. At one point, on the drive back from New Jersey, Reeve rents a motel room to do the deed (and the clerk is creepy towards Janie, which, gross, the book repeatedly mentions how she looks young for 15!!!!). Friends, I’m pretty sure this is why my then-Mormon, now-Pagan mother didn’t want me to read this book at the time. All of this angst is for naught because they don’t do it in this book.

So, Reeve, of course, has a lawyer-sister that he calls to tell her the entire situation. The lawyer surmises that Janie’s parents probably don’t know that Janie is kidnapped—and that Hannah was most likely the one who kidnapped Janie, for reasons unknown.

The lawyer-sister is right, which is discovered once Janie finally tells her parents the entire story. While Janie wants to stay with the Johnsons, she also wants to let the Springs know she’s ok and alive. The book ends with Janie’s mother calling Jennie’s mother (see what I did there?), and the final line of the book is Janie introducing herself. Fade to black.

Wow, what a rollercoaster of emotion, eh? A lot of Maury Povich moments were packed into this little book. There was one thing that, in 2019, seems just…gross, though. There is a throwaway line that Janie says when she’s trying to demonstrate that she’s “normal” that is super yuck. She others trans and bisexual people in the same breath! The book was written in 1990, so, I dunno. Just be warned about that going in, if you’re going to read it now, because that line has aged poorly.

Look, I’m a messy b*tch who loves drama, so I was totally sucked into this one all over again, and immediately after finishing it, I went to go buy the sequel, “Whatever Happened to Janie”? I stopped though because it was $9.99 and I realized I live walking distance from a library. So, libraries save the day once more!

Anyway, next week is the first Thursday in May, and as I said earlier in the post, we’re going to do a special series in May—the books we read as kids, but probably shouldn’t have. So with that in mind, we’re going to kick this off with truly the most influential book that single-handedly impacted the adult I am today, Jacqueline Susann’s “The Valley of the Dolls,” which I read when I was 12 years old the summer before I went into 7th grade, thanks ma! Until next week …

Kate is a staff contributor. You can follow her on Twitter.

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