CMWR analyzes “The Face on the Milk Carton”

Over the DePaul summer term, the CMWR held a weekly Book Club in collaboration with the English Language Academy, and our selection was the teen-fiction thriller The Face on the Milk Carton, the first installment of a four-part series and the subsequent inspiration for a TV-movie adaptation. The students enjoyed the book and our discussions were interesting, but the CMWR staff was a bit less… enthusiastic in our reviews. Nathalia Oliveira and Ali DeChancie of the CMWR each wrote a review of the book, partly as a way to analyze some of the author’s literary choices from opposing perspectives, and partly as a way to settle our differences with the book and just become casual acquaintances.

Nathalia says:“About as Tasteful as Sour Milk”

In a way, Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton deserves some credit: twenty years after its publication, audiences continue to be captivated by heroine Janie Johnson when she discovers her face on a missing child advertisement. Cooney’s persistent cliffhanger style keeps you greedily flipping the page chapter after chapter, anxious to resolve the mystery or discover a new twist. As readers progress, however, they find themselves less invested in what seemed like a promising story of suspense and more ensnarled by kitschy lunch table dialogue and creepy romances with the older boy next door. I am hard-pressed, actually, to decide which of the following is more offensive: is it Cooney’s labeling of the peaceful 5,000 year old religious tradition Hare Krishna as a depraved and dangerous cult? Or is it Cooney’s tenacity to wring painfully uncomfortable romantic subplots dry for the purpose of inserting more chapters between an enthralling beginning and the anticlimactic and unsatisfying conclusion? Startlingly, however, somewhere between Cooney’s extended milk metaphors and Reeve’s unabashed libido in response to Janie’s identity crisis, I find myself wondering a little bit about what actually happens to Janie. Fortunately for us, master of suspense Cooney has already proposed an answer in her next installment of the four-book franchise, What Ever Happened to Janie?

Ali says: “How I Learned to Stop Complaining and Write a Book Review”

The Face on the Milk Carton grabs your attention from the beginning and then teases your curiosity and patience until the rather anticlimactic ending. The content of the book may not be the most politically correct—as argued by Nathalia—but the narrative is what makes it hold its own as a well-read teen fiction staple. The voice of the main character Janie Johnson keeps the tone readable and relatable. We follow Janie’s perspective throughout the novel, which allows us to understand the internal struggle she has with her conscience as the plot unfolds. Her fear, confusion, impulses and gut reactions—we’re right there with her through it all, and this was precisely the goal of author Caroline Cooney. The fact that we can’t separate our own judgment from Janie’s sense of the world is critical in the book’s design: we only know what Janie herself knows, and thus we build a strong personal connection to the book’s main character. It’s impossible to read the book without caring for Janie’s wellbeing, and as Cooney slowly unravels the mystery of Janie’s kidnapping we keep turning the pages. With Cooney’s tense representation of the struggles of an adolescent identity crisis, and with the ease in which we may sink into Janie’s high school world, she gives us a character that holds our focus through the meandering yet suspense-driven plot.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • This is so depressing. Caroline B. Cooney was my favorite writer as an adolescent. I checked out every one of her books in my grade school library, and I especially loved the Face on the Milk Carton series (definitely read all four). The poor portrayal of Hare Krishna clearly never occurred to me as a blatant case of racist othering as a child. Though now, I am shocked and disappointed that the sick and depraved cult I remembered from the series was based on a legitimate faith tradition. All in all though, her ability to force her reader to turn her pages cultivated a love for reading in me that I still enjoy.

  • Sarah says:

    Caroline Cooney began writing in college giving her a provoking insight to the lives of teens. Cooney is an American author who was born in 1947 and grew up in Connecticut writing books of horror, romance, and mystery books for young adults and was named IRA–CBC Children’s Choice and named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults. The Face on the Milk Carton, which wasn’t planned to have a sequel or turn into a serious, soon became so popular that Cooney’s daughter felt compelled to come up with an idea for the next book.
    The Face on the Milk Carton started off by introducing 15 year old Janie Johnson who had just began driving lessons and found out that she was lactose intolerant. While eating her lunch with her friends at school, she was dying of thirst and craving milk so she decided to swipe her friend, Sarah Charlotte’s, milk and drank the whole thing. When she set the carton down, the whole table began to talk about the missing children’s photos that are placed on the back, and how they think that most are just cases of divorce and not really kidnappings. Janie, thinking she might be going mad or the dairy is getting to her, analyzes the girl with pigtails in a polka dot dress on Sarah Charlotte’s carton thinking, ‘this is me’. The little girl on the carton was really Janie. Throughout this book, Janie struggled with the acceptance of possibly being kidnapped or adopted, hoping that it’s just some sort of misunderstanding. When it finally comes time to get her license, she asks her “parents” for her birth certificate that she has never even seen before getting the response of “we’ll look for it another day”(page 14).
    This book is kind of a roller coaster in the sense that it builds up with suspense, and then becomes rather dull at parts, and then builds up again. At one point, we find out that a woman named Hannah may be her mother and that her parents now are actually her grandparents, but this may not be true because her current parents have other suspicions. This fast paced novel had me putting it down after every chapter to catch a break.
    Although there were a few fascinating plot twists, the idea of the story was carried out in a non intriguing manner. There could have been potential for a more interesting way of Janie discovering she was a missing child, even a more interesting title. The book as a whole just wasn’t appealing to me as I began to read and it seemed as if everything was jumbled together and rushed.
    The theme that stuck out the most in this book is to put words before actions. Janie no matter what in the beginning, no matter how crazy she thought she was going without knowing the truth, would not just simply ask her parents, she and her boyfriend drove to New Jersey just to snoop on the Spring family who she thought was her real family. This theme was exceptionally portrayed throughout the novel.
    Throughout the book, I was able to become emotionally attached to Janie and the situation she was going through. There were deep descriptions of her thoughts and how she felt that her mind was going outside her body when she first discovered her photo on the carton.
    Although this novel seemed rushed and ended with a cliffhanger that had me worried of what was to come of Janie, it was a suspenseful good read. The romance and mystery had me wanting to keep going back to read more and I would recommend this to any teen.