Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new, smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.
Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.
“The Face on the Milk Carton and Janie Johnson” Series
By Caroline B. Cooney
Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers, 1990
In sixth grade I entered public school for the first time at DC Virgo. There were a lot of “firsts” and new things that year. One was a school book fair. I purchased a mass-market paperback, Caroline B. Cooney’s “The Face on The Milk Carton,” which was being marketed to middle-school girls that year. It was really my first suspense/horror book (that wasn’t a classic). It was captivating and terrifying, and all the girls I ate lunch with passed it around and took turns reading aloud from it. I still have it on the shelf, but it is only in the last few years I discovered there are actually four more books in the series—and a made-for-TV movie combining books one and two filmed in Wilmington.
Wow, do I live under a rock sometimes!
The story follows Janie Johnson, who recognizes her own picture on the missing-child ad on the back of a milk carton at school. She becomes haunted by the image and begins to piece together memories, inconsistencies in her life and artifacts from her home’s attic. The people she thought were her parents may actually be her grandparents. Their real daughter joined a cult at a young age and one day materialized on their door step with a little girl she claimed was hers. She disappeared back to the cult and left the child with her parents. Fearing the wrath of the cult (they had already endured years of private detectives and lawyers to try and rescue their daughter), the couple changed their name and moved out of state to protect their granddaughter. Only Janie wasn’t their granddaughter—the cult abducted her from a shopping mall and her biological family, the Springs, are still hoping to find her.
In the first book, Cooney sets up a terrifying situation: What if your family is not your family, and they could be taken away from you with no warning? The successive books—“Whatever Happened to Janie?”, “The Voice on the Radio” and “What Janie Found” (there is a fifth book, but I am not in a position to discuss it, as I have yet to see it)—explore the unending confusion and consequences of this web in captivating turns.
Some of the struggles are obvious: The family Janie grew up with is much more comfortable financially than her biological family, but both have spent a lot of money over the years in efforts related to her kidnapping. What was life like for her four biological siblings after her disappearance? Between the publicity and their now-terrified parents, how are they supposed to approach normal lives? But what, exactly, is trust for these broken people? Can any of them ever forge that link again?
“The Voice on the Radio” follows Janie’s high-school boyfriend to college, where he violates her (and both families’) trust by telling her story on college radio without permission. In the age of oversharing that we currently inhabit, it can be hard to really fathom the impact this can have. Cooney does an amazing job of weaving suspenseful action with the inner worlds we choose to share with others. Where and how do we honor others’ vulnerability? In an even more pressing question: How do we protect our loved ones while still living our own truth?
“What Janie Found” puts Janie in the driver’s seat: The parents who raised her are older than most of her friends’ parents. The stress of the discovery and the last few years has weakened them physically to the point that Janie’s father winds up in ICU. While paying the household bills, Janie discovers her dad has been paying his daughter, Janie’s kidnapper, regularly, for several years. Now she knows where her kidnapper is located—can she create a confrontation? Does she want to?
Wrapped into all these books are questions about what really constitutes a family. Where do responsibilities lie, and where do they begin and end? What makes Cooney’s writing so gripping is her ability to convey the frailty of the human psyche through scene and action rather than excessive post Freudian analysis. Since her audience is middle-school to early high-school age, what she demonstrates in her books is not only educational for people learning to read but also constructs the difference between good and bad writing.
Part of what young adult books try to do is teach life lessons, usually in an entertaining way. Rather than the moralizing and preaching frequently found in the genre, Cooney is trying to show something far more subtle to her readers. She asks her audience to really think about what family is and where responsibilities lie. What is love and how do we fit together as people? Rather than taking the easy way out of simple happy endings in nice little boxes, Cooney’s characters wrestle with genuinely difficult and complex problems that don’t get easier as time goes on; they only intensify. Perhaps that is the true gift she gives her readers (of any age): Life is hard but worth fighting for the ones you love—no matter how frustrating family can be.