There are plenty of redheaded characters in literature. Pippi Longstocking. Ron Weasley. My beloved Anne Shirley. But it doesn’t really count, because we’re always portrayed as the quirky ones -- the gingers. Ron’s a good guy, but he’s a sidekick who’s known for his weird facial expressions and irrational fear of spiders. Pippi represents adventure and fun, but we all know she’s kind of a freak, right? I mean, no offense, but the girl lives with a horse and a monkey. And Anne? Anne is wonderful. She’s imaginative and passionate, fiery and loving and she improves the lives of everyone she encounters. She also breaks her slate over the head of a boy who makes fun of her damn hair. We are assured that by the time Anne is older and considered pretty, her hair has darkened to a nice auburn.
Go ahead. Ask a redhead about their favorite Disney character. You’ll get through about the first three words before they interrupt you yelling, “Ariel! My favorite is Ariel!”
So when Janie Johnson comes along in all of her redheaded glory, when she’s described as beautiful because of her insanely curly, enough-for-three-people’s-heads crimson locks, well -- this is a major moment in redheaded literature.
The Face on the Milk Carton is about red hair. It’s about how red hair is a gene that simply cannot be denied. It’s about how a teenager who sees her own picture on the side of a milk carton can deduce that her parents are not her parents because neither of them has red hair. And it’s about how that same teenager can confirm that she’s finally found her real family when she spots four kids with freckles and – you guessed it – getting off of a school bus.
Of course, the book is really about what happens in between all of that, from Janie’s reluctance to believe that she’s been kidnapped, through her decision-making process in determining who to tell her secret to, and what happens to a teenager already going through so many changes when she finds out that her entire identity is a lie. It’s great. It has kidnappings and cults and boys next door and hair, oh-so-much red hair.
I read this book when I was a preteen (and obviously watched the accompanying made-for-TV movie starring Kellie Martin.). I loved the drama of it. Kids that age live for drama, and the idea that it could come out of the clear blue sky like that (at lunch! At school!) was thrilling. I wanted something that exciting to happen to me. (I didn’t think it through, ok? I was twelve.)
But in rereading the book, I was so. pleasantly. surprised. to find that the writing was truly great. A lot of children’s and YA books don’t hold up. They just don’t. But this was fan-tastic. I Amazon’ed out and plowed through Whatever Happened to Janie?, The Voice on the Radio and What Janie Found. Yesterday, the fifth and final Janie book, Janie Face to Face, was released. It arrived on my doorstep that afternoon – preordered.