On the surface, The Face on the Milk Carton is a good mystery story. Clues accumulate to keep the action moving as Janie Johnson tries to discover her true identity: the lack of baby pictures, the panic over a request to see her birth certificate, and information from the back issue of The New York Times. In addition, Janie’s memories appear in the form of quick glimpses of the past, the incomplete recollections of a three-year-old child. Is she really the girl in the polka-dot dress on the milk carton? Everything builds to a climax as Janie tries to decide whether to contact the Springs and how to confront the Johnsons.
If there were nothing more in this novel, the dramatic plot would be enough to make it a suspenseful page-turner. Below the fast-paced mystery, however, is a book that explores teenage emotions and relationships as it focuses on the need for people to belong and to have a sense of identity and importance.
As Janie falls into a romantic relationship with Reeve, she constantly struggles with problems surrounding the deeper emotional love that comes from being a member of a family. Her normal teenage concern about making her name sound unique turns into a greater concern as she seeks to determine both who she really is and what kind of person she is. If she really loved the Springs, why did she go with Hannah? If she really loves the Johnsons, why is she obsessed with the Springs? If she contacts the Springs, does that mean she does not...
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Although not included on any “best books” lists when first published, The Face on the Milk Carton has become popular with young adults. In addition to receiving the Pacific States and Iowa Teen awards, the novel was an International Reading Association-Children’s Book Council (IRA-CBC) Children’s Choice Book. Its sequel, Whatever Happened to Janie (1993), was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.
Throughout The Face on the Milk Carton, Cooney presents only one side of the story—that of Janie and the Johnsons. In the sequel, she presents the story of the Springs, including their life in the years without Janie (their Jennie) and the adjustments that have to be made when Janie rejoins the family.
The subject of kidnapping has been discussed in other young adult novels, although not in the same manner as in The Face on the Milk Carton. In Taking Terri Mueller (1981), by Norma Fox Mazer, a young girl is kidnapped by her noncustodial parent. In The Twisted Window (1987), by Lois Duncan, Brad kidnaps a young girl to replace the sister whom he accidentally killed. Jean Thesman’s Rachel in Rachel Chance (1990) tries to find her young brother, who has been kidnapped by a religious group. In contrast, Cooney deals with the emotional problems of a kidnapped child who has been living with a wonderful family that knows nothing about her past.