The Face on the Milk Carton

by Caroline B. Cooney, Caroline Bruce

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Themes and Characters

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Janie Johnson appears to have a pleasant, pampered, and protected life with her parents, Frank and Miranda. They live in a modernized older home where Janie has the largest bedroom since each of her parents has a separate home office. They opt to take the smaller remaining bedroom which demonstrates how loving and giving they are when it comes to their daughter. Janie is pretty and petite and relatively popular. Her glorious and abundant red hair makes her a stand out, although she prefers to be a viewer of the action rather than a participant. Her parents provide her with abundant cultural opportunities such as playing the flute and taking horseback-riding lessons. Nearly all these opportunities are abandoned, although she does well enough academically and seems to have good friendships with school chums like Sarah-Charlotte and Adair.

Cooney uses foreshadowing and irony to delineate her central protagonist in The Face on the Milk Carton. Initially Janie daydreams of having a more distinctive name by adding letters to her present name— Jaynee Johnstone. Ironically within fifteen pages of this daydream she is confronted with her real name, Jennie Spring, on the milk carton. Even the circumstance of this discovery on a milk carton is ironic because Janie is lactose intolerant and usually avoids drinking milk. With the discovery of her abduction as a three-year-old over ten years ago Janie is thrown into a state of emotional vacillation—one moment distrusting her parents then fiercely protecting and loving them, but all the time wondering about and wanting to make contact with her real family, the Springs, who live in New Jersey. As if this isn't enough she feels a tremendous sense of guilt in being lured away from them by a stranger [Hannah] who gave her an ice cream sundae, another example of lactose intolerant irony.

Reeve Shields is Janie's love interest and protector (the use of his last name suggests this role) during her emotional, tumultuous journey to discover the complete truth about her identity. He is literally the boy next door who has spent a great deal of time at the Johnsons over the years seeking refuge from his domineering and academically successful older siblings. Reeve finds it overwhelming to live up to his parents' expectation of doing the same. He seems the obvious person for Janie to seek out and trust; besides, the bold good looks of this senior are attractive to this impressionable sophomore. He is a good listener as well as kisser.

The dominant theme that emerges from this plot-driven narrative is the universal need for open, honest communication between parent and child. If Miranda and Frank Johnson had been more forthcoming with the information as far as they knew about Janie's background before the milk carton incident, her emotional trauma would not have been so intense. Every child eventually discovers some faults with their parents but this is an especially agonizing discovery and the author clearly wants the reader to respond with empathy to Janie's dilemma.

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Chapter Summaries