Sunday, August 19, 2012

Old School Sunday: Review: The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline Cooney

The Face on the Milk Carton. by Caroline Cooney. 1990. Random House. 192 pages. ISBN: 9780385323284

The Face on the Milk Carton - the story of a teenage girl who realizes she is a kidnapping victim after seeing her own face on a carton of milk - was published in 1990, and I think I first heard of it just a few years later, when I was in 6th or 7th grade. I remember how popular it was with the girls in my class, even the ones who didn’t ordinarily like books, and I’m sure I read it, though I didn’t have any specific memories of the plot, or of how the ending was resolved until picking it up again recently.

Here’s what I’d forgotten: (If you’ve never read the book, these might be spoilers, but I don’t really like to worry about spoilers for books that are 22 years old.)

  • How much I love Reeve! I had a vague sense that I liked him because I read The Voice on the Radio later in my teens and I remember his character from that. But I had an obsession as a teenager with romance stories involving the boy next door - how could I have forgotten Janie and Reeve kissing in the leaves?
  • The existence of Hannah. I actually think I got the plot of this book confused with Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Twice Taken, where the main character actually leaves to go live with the family from whom she was originally kidnapped. I’d forgotten about that extra twist, where the parents weren’t the kidnappers, but their cult member daughter was. I like it better than Pfeffer’s story line. I wonder why hers was more memorable for me.
  • The frank sexual discussions. I was probably 12 when I read this and chances are, I skimmed over anything I felt uncomfortable with or didn’t understand, because I had no recollection at all of any mention of sexuality in the story. But because of the romance with Reeve, an older boy, it does come up. It’s still not super-explicit, but I never would have remembered those details twenty years later, so for me, as a kid, that was not a memorable or significant part of the story.
  • The cliffhanger ending! I am sure I was reading this book after the sequel, Whatever Happened to Janie was already published, and I actually think I have been remembering these first two books about Janie as one story, rather than two. But what an ending for this first book! I don’t know how I would have stood it if the sequel hadn’t been available right away. (Incidentally, as I write this, I am 6th on the hold list for the Kindle edition at one of my libraries, and it’s kind of making me twitch, having to wait for it.)
From a more critical standpoint, this reading made me aware of just how good a writer Caroline Cooney is. I never appreciated the language of her books before, and I actually expected the writing to be a lot less impressive and more run-of-the-mill. The prose just flows, however, and some of the descriptions are just lovely to read aloud and savor. Cooney also knows how to build suspense and make it pay off, and how to keep readers turning the pages. While some of the school-related and milk carton-related details might not be relevant in 2012, the tone and style of the writing felt as fresh as ever, and Janie is not just a pawn for demonstrating a complicated situation. She is a real, believable teen with a fully layered personality, and an identity beyond just the kidnapping or just the romance. The story is short, but there’s a lot in it, and I’m going to start recommending this book to middle schoolers more often!

I borrowed the Kindle edition of The Face on the Milk Carton from my local public library and read it on my Smartphone. 

For more about this book, visit Goodreads and Worldcat


  1. I should read this. It's kind of sad that I haven't yet.

    1. You definitely should - it's a quick one. But I'll warn you - the series is addictive!


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