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Book Review(s): The Janie Johnson Series by Caroline B. Cooney

Instead of reviewing each of these books separately, I thought I’d write about the quartet (soon to be a quintet) in one post.  I read one book right after another, and this seems like the right thing to do with these books, which were a trip down nostalgia lane.

Fifteen-year-old Janie Johnson has a good, safe life with her parents in suburban Pennsylvania.  She wishes she were more exotic like her friends Sarah-Charlotte or Adair, but overall, she likes her life.  All of that changes when she grabs a carton of milk in the school cafeteria and sees her own face staring back at her.  How can she know that the three-year-old girl on the milk carton is really her?  And if it is her, does that make her loving parents cold-hearted kidnappers?  Things become more complicated once she decides to speak up, and when her real family in New Jersey wants her back, Janie feels torn between the people who have raised her and the people who are her blood.  As she struggles to come to terms with her life, she leans on her boyfriend Reed, but he needs to process what’s happened, too.  Over the course of four books, the two drift apart and come back together as Janie gets to know her real family–and herself.

Caroline B. Cooney’s series about Janie and the aftermath of discovering her kidnapping as a child is a series firmly rooted in the early 90s.  Despite the fact that the four books featuring Janie were all published in the 90s (with a fifth book to be published in January this coming year), most people only remember the first book, The Face on the Milk Carton.  The other novels, while all featuring the same cast of characters, seem to take a backseat to the first one.  There was even a pretty terrible made-for-TV movie based on the first book (it starred Kellie Martin and yes I’ve seen it).  For whatever reason, despite loving the first book in this suspense series, I never went on to read the other books.  That changed this summer, when I decided I really wanted to see what would happen to Janie.  The result was sort of anti-climactic, in that not a lot actually happens in these four books.

However, they’re fairly well-written books featuring strong, well-developed characters, and Cooney doesn’t shy away from the tough questions.  Nor does she offer any easy answers: Janie is genuinely torn between the two families, and it becomes clear that both families love her dearly.  One of the strongest aspects of all the books was the development of a relationship between Janie and her siblings, and this reader appreciated the fact that it was slow going, often incredibly frustrating, and super awkward as the kids all got to know one another.  It was exceedingly well-done.

It’s hard to tell if these books are really meant for teens or for more of a middle-grade audience.  I also wonder if these books stand the test of time in terms of becoming obsolete: there’s a lot that happens in the first few books that could have been solved with a quick Google search.  Even so, there’s no denying the books hold an immense amount of nostalgia for readers of my generation, and Cooney was a pioneer in creating suspenseful, thoughtful novels for young readers.

Looking forward to the fifth book, entitled Janie Face to Face, out this coming January.