69 pages 2 hours read

Maureen Johnson

13 Little Blue Envelopes

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


13 Little Blue Envelopes is a young adult novel by Maureen Johnson. The novel is a travelogue, following protagonist Ginny Blackstone on an unconventional backpacking trip across Europe. The trip is guided by 13 letters written by her now-deceased aunt. The novel explores the idea of Travel as Self-Discovery and is a coming-of-age story depicting Ginny’s growing sense of confidence and independence. The novel also discusses The Personal Nature of Grief, The Importance of Trust in Relationships, and The Power of Artistic Expression. Johnson has published a sequel to this novel titled The Last Little Blue Envelope.

This guide refers to the 2005 HarperTeen “Epic Reads” paperback edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

Virginia “Ginny” Blackstone was 15 years old when her beloved Aunt Peg vanished without a trace. This wasn’t unusual for Peg, who was a painter living in New York City and who had a reputation for running away when things became difficult or boring. Because of her reputation, Ginny and her parents didn’t worry much at the beginning. Just as they were starting to become very concerned about Peg’s well-being, Peg sent a few vague postcards to reassure them that she was all right. These postcards were the last updates that Ginny and her family received from Peg. Three months before the events of the novel, Ginny’s family received word that Peg had died from a brain tumor. She died in London.

As the novel opens, Ginny is 17 and has just received a mysterious letter from her dead Aunt Peg, asking her to go to the noodle shop in the building where Peg used to live in New York City. Ginny goes and finds a packet waiting for her that contains 13 little blue envelopes. Peg’s first letter includes a few details and instructions: She wants Ginny to take a trip to Europe, which will be guided by the letters in the envelopes. Ginny is to open the envelopes one at a time, completing whatever task is listed in each letter before opening the next. Peg has other rules too: Ginny should bring only what will fit in a backpack, she shouldn’t bring any money (Peg says she’ll provide that), and Ginny isn’t allowed to carry guidebooks or communicate with people back home (except by letter).

The first letter sends Ginny to London. This letter also includes a debit card to a British bank. The account has a few thousand dollars in it and is the money that Aunt Peg intends for Ginny to use in her travels. In London, Ginny meets Richard Murphy. At the time, she believes that Richard was Peg’s friend and roommate while she stayed in London. Later, it will be revealed that Richard and Peg were married and that he nursed her while she was dying. In London, Ginny also meets Keith Dobson, a college student studying theater at a local art school. She meets him while completing one of Peg’s unusual tasks, this one asking her to find an artist to support as a “mysterious benefactor.” Ginny’s shyness and hesitancy mean that she handles the task awkwardly, but she develops a friendship that will blossom into romance with Keith.

Aunt Peg’s next letter directs Ginny to go to Edinburgh to meet Peg’s art mentor. Ginny and Keith ride the train to Edinburgh together and enjoy the afternoon with Peg’s quirky mentor. Back in London, Keith shocks Ginny by revealing that he stole a small toy from the mentor’s house, thinking that it would be a fun souvenir for Ginny; they part with angry words.

Next, Aunt Peg’s letter sends Ginny to Rome to see the ruins of a temple dedicated to the goddess Vesta. While in Rome, Peg also challenges Ginny to invite a boy out on a date. This plan backfires when the guy Ginny meets wants to have sex and she’s not interested. Ginny leaves his apartment before things escalate.

Aunt Peg then sends Ginny to Paris on an overnight train. The train is a new and interesting experience for Ginny, but she is beginning to get lonely at this point in her trip. She wishes for some company and is envious of the group of girls she sees in her Paris hostel who are obviously traveling together. In Paris, Peg asks Ginny to visit the Louvre before challenging her to locate the cafe that Peg decorated on her own visit to the city. After asking around with some locals, Ginny finds a cafe called Les Petits Chiens, which is decorated in Peg’s distinct style. She spends the afternoon talking with the owner, who remembers Peg affectionately.

Keith surprises Ginny by showing up at her hostel in Paris. They enjoy wandering the city together and, accidentally staying out past the hostel’s curfew, sleep on a bench in the Tuileries gardens. They discuss the incident of Keith stealing from Aunt Peg’s mentor, and the two come to an understanding. Keith is in France to perform his satirical play, Starbucks: The Musical, so he asks Ginny to contact him and then heads to his performance.

Following the instructions in Aunt Peg’s next letter, Ginny travels to Amsterdam. Peg wanted her to visit a friend, but the friend no longer lives at the address that Peg supplied. Stymied, Ginny searches for a place to stay but is unable to find one that is clean and within her budget. About to give up on Amsterdam altogether, Ginny tries one last hotel. A family staying there hears of her plight and invites her to share a room with their college-aged daughter. This is the Knapp family; Ginny spends the next few days with them, following along on their structured, fast-paced tour of the city.

Ginny flies from Amsterdam to Copenhagen. Aunt Peg’s friend picks her up from the airport and takes her along the canals in his houseboat. Outside the city, they dock near a field of windmills to observe the midnight sun. After leaving him, Ginny books a room at a hostel, where she meets a group of four Australian students traveling together. They invite her out for the night, and she surprises herself by participating in—and winning—a karaoke contest. The next morning, she tells them about Peg’s letters, and they ask to accompany her to her next stop: the Greek isle of Corfu.

It takes 24 hours via train plus an overnight ferry to get from Copenhagen to Corfu. Ginny enjoys the company of her new friends. Upon her arrival in Corfu, Ginny’s bag is stolen, as is the bag of one of her new friends. Ginny is lucky to have her passport in her pocket, but Aunt Peg’s 13th letter is in her stolen bag. This is a tough blow because letter 12 had promised a big reveal and a big ask in letter 13. Feeling that this phase of her trip has come to an end, Ginny calls Richard, who books her a flight back to London.

Richard picks Ginny up from the airport. On the train back to his house, he reveals to her that he and Aunt Peg got married before she died. This news, combined with the loss of Peg’s final letter, forces Ginny to confront the reality of Peg’s death in a way that she hadn’t before. She is overcome by grief and flees from Richard when the train doors open. Ginny goes to Keith’s house. He comforts her and gives her a place to stay the night but encourages her to go to Richard’s the next day.

The following morning, Ginny and Keith go to Richard’s house. He left a note for Ginny, hoping that she would come and expressing his desire to talk with her. While they’re at Richard’s house, Ginny and Keith look through Aunt Peg’s bedroom and find a key that she hid for Ginny. Ginny imagines that the location of this key was probably mentioned in Peg’s 13th letter. Ginny deduces that the key goes to a cabinet in Peg’s painting studio. The studio is at Harrods, where Richard works, because he is the one who arranged the studio for her while she was alive.

In the cabinet at Harrods, Ginny, Keith, and Richard find a collection of Aunt Peg’s paintings. The paintings depict landmarks from Peg’s—and Ginny’s—travels around Europe. Peg made the paintings while she was sick, and the style changed as her illness progressed. Ginny discovers that Peg had arranged for the paintings to be sold at auction; they sell for £70,000. Peg left that money to Ginny.

Ginny decides to give half of Aunt Peg’s money to Richard before going home to the States.

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