The Face on the Milk Carton

by Caroline B. Cooney, Caroline Bruce

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InThe Face on the Milk Carton, Caroline B. Cooney tells Janie Johnson’s story from the limited omniscient point of view. This straightforward approach allows Cooney to focus on Janie, to give the reader access to Janie’s thoughts, and to provide glimpses of the flashbacks that occur in Janie’s mind as she remembers her life before the age of three.

The protagonist is a high school sophomore who, thinking her life is dull, seeks to add “personality” by changing the spelling of her name from “Jane” to “Janie.” Eating lunch in the school cafeteria with her friends, she looks at a milk carton and sees a photograph of herself when she was three years old. The name beneath the picture, however, is Jennie Spring, and the information states that she was reported missing by a family in New Jersey.

Although she loves the Johnsons, Janie begins to gather clues about her early life. Her mother acts strangely when Janie needs her birth certificate to get a driver’s license and passport. There is also the absence of any baby pictures of Janie. Finally, in an attic trunk, she finds the polka-dot dress shown in the missing person photograph.

When Janie confronts the Johnsons, they tell her that rather than being their daughter, she is their granddaughter. Their daughter Hannah, who was brainwashed by a cult, came home one day with her own daughter, young Janie. When Hannah left to rejoin the cult, she left Janie behind. Fearing that the cult would come to take Janie away, the Johnsons changed their name and, with the help of an attorney, moved, leaving no forwarding address.

While wanting to believe the Johnsons, Janie cannot forget the information from the milk carton. Skipping school, she persuades her boyfriend Reeve to drive her to the New Jersey town where the Spring family lives. There she watches as the Spring children arrive home and are greeted by their mother. Janie and the Springs have the same red hair. Putting together the information from her flashbacks, Janie realizes that she was once part of this family.

As she learns more about the past, she realizes that the Johnsons did not kidnap her from the Springs; Hannah did. Torn between her love for the Johnsons and the pain that she knows the Spring family has suffered, Janie writes detailed notes about what she has found and sinks into despair. She even blames herself for the kidnapping. Her refusal to tell the Johnsons drives a wedge between her and Reeve, and they break up.

Events come to a head when Janie puts her notes in an envelope that she has addressed to the Springs. When she finds the clip in her notebook broken and the envelope missing, Janie realizes that someone may find the letter and mail it. She turns to Reeve, who contacts his sister Lizzie. Although it is Lizzie who, along with Reeve and Janie, tells the Johnsons the entire story, it is Janie who places the phone call to the Springs that ends the novel.


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The primary function of setting in this novel is to accentuate the comfortable and secure upper middle-class lifestyle that Janie Johnson leads. Her suburban Connecticut neighborhood contains a sense of tradition that can make room for growth.

Their's [the Johnson's] was an architecturally mixed neighborhood. Originally a street of substantial older houses with front porches, big attics, and trees that dumped a million leaves every autumn, each side lot had been built upon. Modern ranches and cute little Cape Cods lay between each brown-shingled old place. Her own house...

(This entire section contains 263 words.)

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was an old one dramatically modernized with sheets of glass where once there had been dark, hidden rooms.

A typical New England autumn becomes the seasonal backdrop replete with mountains of leaves piled in the street gutters waiting to be collected. A Saturday tailgate picnic before a football game and a drive into the country to witness the fall colors contrast with the tumbled colors in Janie's turbulent mind indicated in italic print.

Inside, her mind spun. It was like having a color wheel for a brain. When it slowed down, things were separate, like primary colors: I have a mother and father . . . I have a childhood . . . I was not kidnapped . . . kidnapping means bad people . . . I don't know any bad people . . . therefore I am making this up.

But when her mind speeded up, the colors blended dizzily. That is me on there. I, Janie Johnson; I was kidnapped.

The author concentrates most of her energies in developing the country of the mind in Janie's psychological setting through a third-person limited omniscient point of view.

Literary Qualities

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The most effective writing strategy employed by Cooney in this plot-driven narrative of mystery and suspense is a series of flashbacks into Janie's memory. The milk carton incident triggers a specific memory about the dress the little girl is wearing. "She remembered that dress . . . how the collar itched . . . remembered the fabric; it was summer fabric; the wind blew through it . . . remembered how those braids swung like red silk against her cheeks."

Frequently these flashbacks, usually signaled by Cooney with italics, are tripped by an event or object in present time. As Janie and Reeve are about to eat ice cream sundaes, she remembered her abduction in the mall when a woman with "long straight cascading hair" tempts her with an ice cream sundae. Janie refers to these flashbacks as daymares, "a nightmare taking place in the day." Interspersed with these daymares are other unsettling discoveries. There are no photos of Janie before age five (not even a baby portrait). Her parents stonewall giving Janie her birth certificate that she will need as proof of identity in order to get her driver's license. When Janie discovers the polka-dot dress worn by her in the milk carton photo hidden in the attic of her home, Frank and Miranda must confess all they know about her background. Other flashbacks come to Janie about two babies in a kitchen and a man with a red mustache holding her close enough for her to tug on the ends of it—to be later confirmed as her younger twin brothers and her red-haired dad (like hers) and her siblings. These events effectively give momentum to the plot resulting in Janie's contact with the Springs.

In addition to serving as a confidante for Janie, Reeve's character also functions as Janie's first romantic interest. Their physical attraction for each, the lingering kiss in the seclusion of the mountainous leaf piles in their front yards provide a pleasurable momentary distraction for them as well for the reader from the serious issue in this narrative. They do not physically consummate their relationship but they are close enough to feel "heartbeats". . . etc. On their way home from New Jersey where Janie confirms her ties to the Springs from a distance, they rent a motel room but mutually withdraw from this temptation. Humor breaks the psychological and physical tension of these preceding scenes when they debate who's going to drive back to Connecticut.

"I don't think I can drive," said Reeve when they were in the Jeep.

"Well, I can't, not in this traffic."

"You want driving experience, take it."

Neither of them wanted driving experience. It was another experience altogether

they wanted. "Start the motor," said Janie. "Believe me, it's running," said Reeve, and they giggled desperately.

Cooney portrays them as lovable kids with healthy libidos. Mystery, suspense and romance spun by this competent author make for a good read. The Face on the Milk Carton received IRA-CBC Children's Book Choice recognition.

Social Sensitivity

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Nearly all children have thought at some moment in their childhood that the parents they live with are not their real parents. Whether it is a secret adoption or abduction, this is a universal childhood fear that Janie confronts.

I don't want to know thought Janie. Because . . . because why? Does something deep inside me know already? But why now? Why something like your real family, and the moment you were taken from them?

Briefly Janie remembers a folk narrative where a fairy change-child or changeling is switched with a human baby from its unsuspecting family. The universality of this fear runs deep in the human psyche which makes the possibility of it occurring an alluring read for all ages.

Keeping Janie's true identity from her compromises the relationship between Janie and the Johnsons. Frequently throughout this ordeal she vows never to trust them again. She becomes the victim of their secrecy much the same way Miranda and Frank Johnson are victimized by their daughter's deceit. Hannah lies to her parents, claiming that Janie is her daughter and their granddaughter. Bringing Janie to them is the first positive act on Hannah's part in her beleaguered life. She was given all the opportunities of an upper middle-class lifestyle but rejects these accouterments because others do not have the same advantages. Wanting to divest herself of worldly trappings seems noble in motive but when she flees her home to join a cult she seems to have gone over the edge by kidnapping a child (Janie), and willfully implicating her parents in this crime without their knowledge. Frank Johnson tries to explain what a cult is to Janie.

A cult is a religious group with exceedingly strict rules for those people who join it. The Hare Krishna movement swept America like a prairie fire in the sixties and seventies, Janie. It attracted old and young, hippy and conservative, East Coast and West Coast. And it attracted Hannah. She met a group of young people who told her if she became a Hare Krishna, she would be purified. It would no longer be her fault she had so much, because they would not allow her to have anything. She would be saved. When she was sixteen, she fell on her knees and begged to be allowed to be one of them.

Hannah runs away and joins the cult marrying one of its members, causing significant sadness for the Johnsons. They believe they failed as parents, but when given a second chance to nurture their grandchild, they willingly sacrificed their identities not unlike people entering a witness protection program. Hannah makes fugitives of them; their only solace is the child they believe is their grandchild. They suffer two-fold when they learn of Hannah's betrayal and the prospect of losing a child for a second time. Cooney extends compassion to these parents who have endured so much heartbreak but seem unable to break this spiral especially when Janie's true identity is verified to them as Jennie Spring in the closing pages of this first novel in the trilogy. A child/adolescent such as Hannah who cannot be rescued from her obsessions while parents watch helplessly must be one of the more profound sorrows of the human experience.

For Further Reference

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"Caroline B. Cooney." June 1999. Online Internet http://www dellbooks:com/ teachersbdd/caro.html. A brief look into Cooney's childhood with her memories of reading such series books as The Hardy Boys and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse.

"Caroline B. Cooney." Something about the Author, Volume 80. Edited by Kevin S. Hile. Detroit: Gale, 1995, pp. 55-57. Briefly assesses representative titles up to the publication date of this reference text.




Critical Essays