In 1990, The Face on the Milk Carton was published by Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers (that's an early version of the book cover at right; the spookier update is above). The novel features notable redheaded character Janie Johnson, an otherwise happy, normal 15-year-old who during lunch in the school cafeteria one day sees what she believes is her own childhood face on a milk carton. Thus begins her utterly compelling psychological, emotional, and occasionally geographical journey — with the help of trusty next-door neighbor and love interest Reeve Shields — to figure out who she really is, and what happened.
In the more than 20 years that followed that first book, there have been sequels — Whatever Happened to Janie? ('93), The Voice on the Radio ('96), and What Janie Found (2000). The series has sold more than 4.2 million copies altogether. The most recent novel is Janie Face to Face, in which author Caroline B. Cooney concludes the series and reveals what happens to Janie and Reeve as grownups, and whether Janie's kidnapper, Hannah, ever gets her due. Writing the followups, though, was never part of the initial plan, Cooney told me. The first book "was meant to be a standalone," she said. "I was never going to write a second, never going to write a third, and the fourth, I knew it was the final book — they even put that on the cover! But my editor called me up [after number 4] and said, 'I still think about Janie, and I think about who she and Reeve and their families would be as adults. Why don't you do that?'"
Cooney, who's authored some 90 books for young readers, primarily suspense, doesn't normally write about adults, but she took up the challenge. "These kids were very close to me, and I had the advantage of knowing what my readers wanted," she said. "From the beginning, they’ve written, 'Do Reeve and Janie get married?' And they’re so annoyed, they want the kidnapper to get hers. The story is really about how you cope and do the right thing, but I knew if I wrote the adult story, I’d have to deal with those other two things." Original fans of the Janie series will likely not want to miss the chance to hang out with those familiar characters again, peek into their continuing romance, and see what happens to Hannah. (Hint: A key plot point in the latest novel hinges not on milk cartons, but on Facebook.)
That an intended-to-be-one-off book published in 1990 could have such a long life, continuing to resonate with those original readers and new ones so many years later, is credence to the deep question it addresses. Cooney, who's now at work on a historical novel about the children who sail on the Mayflower, told me she never anticipated how popular the book would be, but she was aware from the beginning that her plot idea was something special. "The best question in a book is 'Who am I?'" she explains.
Indeed, that question had a lot of us under its spell from the start. Who was Janie? If Janie was that 3-year-old with the pigtails on the front of a carton of milk, kidnapped from a shopping mall in New Jersey and named Jennie Spring, why does she live in Connecticut with the name Janie and parents who aren't her own? Did her beloved mom and dad kidnap her? And what can and should she do about the New Jersey parents who are, it seems, still looking for her?
And from that: Who were we? Even among those who adored their perfect families (cough), who didn't think, occasionally, what it might have meant to have been born into another one? Who, in the aftermath of a vicious teenage fight with one's mom, perhaps even a grounding, didn't wish she could turn her parents in for another set? On the other hand, and on a more existential level, many of us live with a continual, dull background fear that something we've always assumed to be true about ourselves may turn out to be false. The inability to truly know oneself — the truth about one's health, one's parents, one's relationships, even one's innermost thoughts or subconscious — is not something reserved as a worry for teens. Everyone wonders, what if? What if something was revealed that unalterably changed the lives we've lived up to this time? That's what happens to Janie.
So it's some serious stuff that Cooney is confronting when redheaded Janie Johnson gazes at her younger self on a carton of milk (that she's not even supposed to be drinking, having just found out she's lactose intolerant and been forbidden not only milk but also ice cream). Those of us of a certain age devoured this book, reading it not only once, but many times. ESPN magazine editor Megan Greenwell tweeted to me, "I fixated on it to an unhealthy degree," while Riverhead's Lydia Hirt tweeted, "I probably read it 5x. Still remember Janie's redhead fam." One reader credited it with generating her fear of kidnapping by cult; another said, "It made me irrationally concerned that I had been kidnapped because my parents were so nice." This book got into us; it made us think, and keep thinking about it, even after we finished reading.
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.