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 love the Johnsons? Such questions race through Janie’s mind.
Reeve plays an important part in the novel, primarily as a foil for Janie. Fun-loving when she is serious, he remains stable as she becomes more upset. Yet, Reeve is not without his own problems of identity. The youngest in a family of overachievers, he is judged against the successes of his two older sisters and his older brother. He believes that his family thinks of him as the “dumb one.” While Janie knows that Reeve is not stupid, her own problem is so great that she is not able to help him. Instead, it is Reeve who must become the strong individual.
As in many of her novels, Cooney does an excellent job of presenting her characters through dialogue. She shows the normal growing pains and frustrations of a teenager in the late twentieth century—the excitement of a...
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