For many of us, too, it was the kickoff to a lifelong love of reading, particularly in the genres of suspense and horror. Caitlin Moore, film editor at Austinist.com, told me, "This book was all the rage at my Montessori school in the early '90s. My friends and I passed it around and discussed it endlessly (every girl loves a good adoption fantasy), and as I recall it sparked a Y.A. mystery trend that led us to darker material like Christopher Pike, V.C. Andrews, and eventually Stephen King (you know, stuff that worried our parents). I think the idea of finding out your whole life has been based on a lie is very intriguing to young girls."
Greenwell, who was in fourth grade when she read the first book, agreed that the deeper question at the heart of the book was what made it speak to so many of us. "I think The Face on the Milk Carton tapped into some primal 'what if' sense in me, though I wouldn't have described it as such at the time. It definitely made me wonder if I was secretly not my parents' child based on no evidence whatsoever." Plus, who didn't sort of covet Janie's life drama in the humdrum everyday of school and play and home? "While I understood on some level that this must be sort of a traumatic thing for poor fictional Janie, I also envied the excitement of her life," she said.
In fast-forwarding us to current day on Janie and Reeve, Cooney works in new technology — Facebook, for instance, and cell phones (Janie adores hers). While the chronology may not work exactly if you give it too much thought — it's 20 years after the first book for us, but only several years later for the characters in the series — the inclusion of the social media site makes for an admirable jump ahead to update the series. In many ways, Facebook does fit the bill as the new "milk carton" of our time. Cooney, aware of the difficulties of coping with technological innovation in a series of novels released over a 20-year period, said, "You can’t go back and technologically update the first books, they stand. But the last book, it had to have this. I thought, my readers are smart. They’ll figure it out."
Of course, the inception for the original idea was less tech, more bricks and mortar: "I was at La Guardia airport, long prior to the changes of 9/11," Cooney told me, and "the concourse was plastered with homemade missing child posters. One picture showed a very small child, two or three years old, and she’d been missing for 15 years. I just wept for those parents thinking their daughter might still be found — no one could recognize her — and then I thought, what if the girl recognized herself? What a spooky idea!"
It was. Greenwell says, "At the climactic moments—her finding the stuff in the attic, the first time she and her boyfriend see her biological family with their red hair, the phone conversation at the end—I FELT her anxiety, or was convinced I did." In some ways, Janie was just like us ... and yet, the situation she found herself in was nothing we could have imagined, until we read it. "Having one foot still in fantasy land combined with pre-teen angst makes imagining an alternate reality (different friends, house, clothes, parents) super compelling," says Moore. And it was empowering, too: "At an age when we couldn't make very many decisions on our own, reading about girls who have to make such huge dramatic choices was scintillating and great."
Cooney considers the characters in the series some of her favorites in her lengthy writing career. "I truly loved them more," she told me. There is something she'd change, though, if she'd known how many books in the series would ultimately exist. "I would definitely have named her Janie," she says, "but I wouldn't have it rhyme with Jodie, and I wouldn’t have twins named Brendan and Brian. Who can keep them straight?"
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.