Maureen Johnson

13 Little Blue Envelopes

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13 Little Blue Envelopes Summary

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13 Little Blue Envelopes is a 2005 young adult realistic novel by American author Maureen Johnson. Set in New York and throughout Europe, the story follows shy, seventeen-year-old Virginia (Ginny) Blackstone on an adventurous journey of acceptance and self-discovery spurred on by her late artistic aunt Peg. When Peg suffers a fatal illness, she leaves behind thirteen little blue envelopes, or instructions, for Ginny to follow. With four key rules to abide by, Ginny travels across Europe on a quest to open the letters and discover whom her aunt Peg really was. Along the way, Ginny breaks out of her own timid shell, learning to enjoy herself, and having the greatest experience of her young life. The novel has been called “sophisticated and humorous” by Kirkus Reviews, as well as “sensitive” and “authentically portrayed” by Booklist.

Narrated in the first person by Virginia (Ginny) Blackstone, the story begins in New York. Ginny is a shy teenager who lives with her straight-laced parents in New Jersey. While on summer vacation in New York, Ginny goes to the 4th Noodle Penthouse, a restaurant she hasn’t frequented in two years. There, Ginny receives a package postmarked from London. Inside the package is a series of envelopes left by Ginny’s aunt Peg who died of brain cancer three months ago. Peg was an aspiring painter whose artistic free spirit was frowned upon by Ginny’s rigid parents. Ginny’s mom insists that it is okay for Ginny to like Peg, as long as she doesn’t want to be like her. Ginny, who has always admired Peg’s spontaneous way of life, has been too timid to follow in her footsteps. Now, Ginny has the chance to act spontaneously by adhering to the instructions left behind by Aunt Peg in the thirteen envelopes. Ginny is given four rules to abide by on her trip: she can only travel with what fits in her knapsack, she cannot bring a diary or use foreign language aids, she cannot bring extra money or use credit cards, and she cannot use or travel with any electronic devices. Peg leaves Ginny $1,000 for a passport and one-way plane ticket to London to begin her quest. Only when Ginny completes the task of a letter, can she open the next.

Ginny is nervous about her journey at first, but since Peg was her favorite aunt (Peg even named Virginia), she agrees to play along. Arriving in London, Ginny visits 54A Pennington Street, per Peg’s first instruction. There, Ginny meets Richard Murphy, Peg’s best friend and former roommate. Richard invites Ginny to Harrods, the sprawling department store where he works. The size of the store, the countless items inside, and the ornate architecture of the building awes Ginny. In the third letter, Peg implores Ginny to gift 500 British pounds to an artist she likes. This leads to Ginny meeting Keith Dobson, the nineteen-year-old playwright who wrote Starbucks: The Musical. Ginny develops a crush on Keith, and the two travel to Edinburgh, Scotland to meet Peg’s artistic guru, Mari Adams. Mari gives Ginny an impermanent tattoo on her shoulder. Ginny has an argument with Keith after he steals a mini-Godzilla statue from Mari, prompting their separation.

Awakening in Rome, Ginny follows a group of tourists to the Roman Coliseum. As an offering to the Vestal Virgins, Ginny leaves a US quarter on the grass between the statues. She opens the next letter, which takes her to Paris, where she stays in a hostel and studies the artistic masters at the Louvre. Ginny reunites with Keith in Paris, who claims that fate brought them back together. They leave the hostel, walk the streets of Paris, and trespass on a cemetery. They argue over the stolen figurine once more, and Ginny parts ways with Keith. Ginny’s next letter directs her to Amsterdam, where she is to meet Peg’s friend Charlie and visit the Rijksmuseum to examine “The Night Watch” painting. Ginny visits a horrendous hotel called The Apple and stays with a frenetic family. Following her time in Amsterdam, Ginny travels to Denmark, where she meets four Australian tourists: Emmet, Bennett, Nigel, and Carrie. The group, dubbing itself the “Blue Envelope Gang,” watches the midnight sun from a houseboat, and follows Peg’s penultimate letter to Corfu, Greece. En route, the twelfth letter explains that Ginny is allowed to open the final envelope whenever she pleases.

While in Greece, Ginny’s knapsack is stolen with the unopened thirteenth letter inside. Her bankcard is overdrawn, so Ginny asks Richard to help her return to England. In London, Richard tells Ginny that he married Peg in her final days before dying, thereby making him Ginny’s uncle. Already distraught by her trying journey, Ginny hysterically runs out of Richard’s flat and heads to Keith’s house. Ginny returns to Richard’s the following day, which leads to the discovery of a collection of Peg’s paintings left in the attic of Harrods department store. The collection is eventually sold off at auction, with the proceeds going to Ginny as her inheritance from Peg. Ginny never recovers the thirteenth letter, but instinctively knows that it instructs Ginny to tell Richard that Peg loved him. The novel ends with Ginny writing a letter to Peg telling her that, despite losing the last letter, Ginny understands what it is meant to convey. Ginny leaves half of her inheritance to Richard and travels back home to New Jersey. Just as Aunt Peg lived with a free spirit, Ginny’s journey has taught her how to step out of her comfort zone and enjoy a fruitful life. Aunt Peg gave Ginny the experience of a lifetime.

Maureen Johnson is a New York Times Bestselling author of several young-adult novels, including the Shades of London series, the Suite Scarlett series, the Truly Devious series, and the sequel to 13 Little Blue Envelopes, The Last Little Blue Envelope, published in 2011.