Caroline B. Cooney

The Face on the Milk Carton

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The Face on the Milk Carton Summary

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The Face on the Milk Carton (1990), a young adult novel by Caroline B. Cooney, went on to become the first book in a series of six novels about the main character. In 1995, The Face on the Milk Carton was adapted into a TV movie starring Kellie Martin and Sharon Lawrence.

Fifteen-year-old Janie Johnson lives with her seemingly normal and loving parents. One day, while having lunch in the school cafeteria with some friends, Janie takes a sip of her friend Sarah-Charlotte’s milk. Lactose intolerant, Janie doesn’t usually drink milk, which explains why she rarely pays attention to the photos of missing children printed on the sides of the cartons. However, today she does look at the girl in the picture, Jennie Spring, noticing she looks just like Janie when she was younger. Janie mentions that she could be the girl in the picture, but her friends all laugh at her concerns.

The more Janie thinks about the picture, the more she becomes convinced that she can remember being kidnapped when she was much younger. These memories come in flashes and without much detail. Back at home, Janie waits until her parents are out of the house and then begins to investigate. She cannot find any baby pictures of her from before she was five years old; a neighbor who knew Janie’s parents when they first moved in tells her that she remembers Janie’s mother being very strict and not letting Janie out of the house very often.

Shortly afterward, Janie’s parents arrive home. Her mother and father are very supportive and loving. However, when Janie asks her mother to see a copy of her birth certificate, her mother becomes evasive. Janie asks Reeve, the boy she has a crush on, about 800 numbers like the one listed on the milk carton; Reeve is confused. They flirt a little and kiss before Reeve is called away.

Janie feels that she can’t talk to her friends about her concerns about the milk carton or kissing Reeve. She dials the number listed on the carton but panics before she finishes and hangs up.

The next day, Janie, her friends, and their families attend a college football game. Janie and Reeve become closer, and Janie’s friends invite her to go on a school trip to Europe. However, Janie can’t go because she doesn’t have a passport. Janie’s friend has just gotten her driver’s license, but Janie doesn’t go riding with her because she wants to get her birth certificate from the bank safe deposit box.

Janie searches the house looking for the key to the safe deposit box. Instead, she finds a trunk in the attic that is full of papers for an unknown girl named Hannah; it also contains the dress that the girl in the photo on the milk carton is wearing. Janie resolves to confront her parents with everything she has found.

Her parents finally reveal that they are actually Janie’s grandparents. Janie’s mother, Hannah, joined a cult and had a child with a man she met there. She briefly came back home, but then returned to the cult, leaving her daughter, Janie, with her parents. Since they were afraid that the cult might be looking for Janie, they changed their name and moved frequently for a few years. At first, relieved by this explanation, Janie realizes it still does not account for Jennie Spring’s picture on the milk carton. She wonders if her parents kidnapped her to replace the missing Hannah.

Janie asks Reeve to drive her to New Jersey where Jennie Spring lived. Once there, she looks up the Spring family, but can’t bring herself to actually talk to them. On the way back, she considers having sex with Reeve, but then decides to wait, which he agrees to. When they arrive back home, they find both their parents panicked about their sudden disappearance. Janie’s parents are especially worried that she will disappear as Hannah did; her mother is reluctant to leave her alone for several days afterward.

Reeve mentions to Janie that he doesn’t think her grandparents are kidnappers. He wonders if it was Janie’s mother who kidnapped her and brought her to the Johnson’s as her own. Janie thinks that this theory makes sense and that they are closing in on the answer to the mystery. She becomes increasingly obsessed until Reeve can’t take it anymore and insists that she talk to her parents.

Janie writes a letter to the Spring family, which shortly afterward goes missing and no one is sure if it has been mailed or not. Janie and Reeve confess everything to the Johnsons. After some debate, everyone finally agrees that Janie must call the Springs to tell them what she knows. The book ends with Janie picking up the phone to call.