Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 511 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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 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...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Should Janie's parents have told her about what they know concerning her identity? Why or why not?

2. Make a list in order of their importance, not necessarily their order of appearance in the novel, of the crucial discoveries that inform Janie about her identity.

Defend your ordering of these events. 3. Should Janie and Reeve have taken advantage of the motel room? How would you react in a similar situation? What would be your parents' reaction?

4. What do you make of Hannah's character? Is she aware of the magnitude of her actions? Is she a sinister character or a "rag doll"? Explain the significance of this last term as it appears in the novel.

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Janie makes use of the New York Times on microfilm to learn more about her abduction at the time it took place ten years earlier. Select a trial or topic currently running on Court TV and locate printed coverage of the crime or event when it originally happened. What information is developed in the original coverage in contrast to what is developed in the court proceedings or television presentation?

2. Read the sequel Whatever Happened to Janie and compare/contrast Janie Johnson in the first novel with Jennie Spring in the second novel. Which character is more likeable and why?

3. Frank Johnson says in the closing pages of The Face on the Milk Carton that "not everything ends happily." How is this prediction accurate for both families in Whatever Happened to Janie? Apply this to specific individuals from each family.

4. Read the final novel in the trilogy, The Voice on the Radio, and demonstrate how Reeve has changed. Does he take responsibility for his actions? Explain in detail.

5. Read Cooney's historical time-travel fantasy Both Sides of Time and compare Annie Lockwood's adventures living in the late 1890s with Janie's.

6. Read either Zilpha Snyder's The Changeling or Eloise McGraw's The Moorchild and comment upon how Ivy or Moql cope and compensate for being different in their respective communities. How do their personality and sense of self compare...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

It is challenging for an author to create a successful sequel especially when the first novel, The Face on the Milk Carton, is developed through mystery, suspense, and romance. The sequel, Whatever Happened to Janie?, chronicles Janie (now known as Jennie) adjusting to her real family. The legal rights of the Springs are upheld in court and respected by everyone so their long lost daughter comes to live with them. Sharing a cramped room with her sister Jodie, enduring the anger and embitterment of her older brother Stephen, and witnessing the heartbreak of her real parents as she hesitates to accept them, gives this novel a tense, painful atmosphere. The FBI and their continuing search for Hannah brings about a truce among Jodie, Stephen and Jennie as they search the underside of New York City for this shadowy personage. This sequel was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

The possibility of Hannah resurfacing in the final novel of the series, The Voice on the Radio, adds an element of mystery. Readers may be disappointed with college freshman Reeve as he gains a reputation for himself as a radio personality on the student broadcasting facility at Janie's expense. Inadvertently Reeve is drawn into a weekly program of narrating Janie's harrowing experiences of the last few years. These programs, known as "janies," gain a wide audience, becoming popular beyond the campus which is located near New York City. Janie moves beyond her...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"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.

(The entire section is 66 words.)