This mystery coming-of-age novel by Caroline B. Cooney is the second in the "Janie" series published by Ember, an imprint of Random House Children's Books.
Whatever Happened to Janie? is written for kids ages 12 years and up. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
In The Face on the Milk Carton, 15-year-old Janie Johnson made the shocking discovery that she'd been kidnapped at age 3. The beloved couple she'd thought were her parents had secretly believed Janie was their granddaughter. Their daughter, Hannah, had run away and joined a cult. She returned one day with Janie, claiming the child was her daughter. When Hannah left to rejoin the cult alone, her parents changed their name to Johnson and moved around frequently to ensure Janie wouldn't be found and taken by cult members. They let Janie believe she was their child. When Janie and the Johnsons learn that Hannah kidnapped the girl, Janie decides to contact her biological parents.
Whatever Happened to Janie begins when Janie is introduced to her biological family, the Springs. Mr. and Mrs. Spring are loving parents with four additional children. Stephen is a teen, still angry about the way a missing sister has impacted his life. Jodie is slightly older than Janie, and twin boys, Brian and Brendan, are a few years younger. After the kidnapping of Jennie Spring years earlier, the Spring parents became fearful and overprotective, keeping a tight rein on their children. They also refused to move out of the house they'd outgrown lest their daughter should return looking for them. When Janie calls them, they're delighted and shocked. They promise not to press charges against Hannah as long as their daughter returns to live with them. Janie doesn't want to leave the mom and dad she loves, but she doesn't want to hurt them further by getting Hannah in legal trouble. She agrees to move back to New Jersey with the Springs.
The Springs call her Jennie, despite the fact that she's been Janie for years. Although she finds them kind, loving people, she resists getting close to them for fear of betraying her other parents. She and the Spring family experience many emotional ups and downs together, but Janie never feels quite at home. An FBI agent visits to get Janie's story about the kidnapping. He informs her that Hannah will be hunted down and brought to trial regardless of the Springs' wishes. Janie tells the Springs she wants to go back to her other family. She keeps in contact with them and even hosts her siblings for visits.
With their daughter gone again, the Springs are hurt and angry. They direct most of their bitterness toward the elusive Hannah. Stephen and Jodie decide to go to New York City, where Hannah was last seen and arrested for prostitution, and find her. In the midst of their search, a police officer points out a dirty, insane-looking vagrant. He tells them that might as well be Hannah, because that's what happens to people who are too old to make money in cults or are prostitutes. Stephen and Jodie return home, realizing life has probably exacted its own revenge on Hannah.
The Springs consider themselves a religious family. They attend mass and pray before meals. One night, as the family prepares to say goodbye to Jennie and move on with life, Dad says a fervent prayer at dinner. He thanks God for the time they have had with her and prays He will give her a guardian angel. Jodie notes that this prayer was different than her father's regular prayers, which seemed to be ordering the kids to behave and be thankful. This prayer was really to the Lord. She also felt He must have been there in their midst because of the relief the family seemed to feel after the prayer that relinquished Jennie to God. When Jodie was little, she didn't feel a lot of anxiety about Jennie's kidnapping because if both Daddy and the Lord told her not to worry, she didn't feel she needed to worry.
The Springs ask if Hannah was religious, if she prayed and read the Bible. Janie says her family isn't religious. Hannah's parents said if they had talked about faith, Hannah might have become a nun or the kind of person who spent life in religious contemplation based on her thoughtful personality. Janie is careful how she talks to the Springs about religion. She goes to Mass with them and finds it a strange way to spend an hour. Stephen points out that Hannah must have known she needed to be religious and that she just needed to find a church. Janie corrects him, saying that she didn't find a church, she found a cult. Mr. Spring explains that cults are largely for making money. A person can call himself a priest of a cult and then find gullible rich kids to follow him and beg for him on the streets.
Sleepless at 4 a.m., Janie feels lost in her new home. She says the part of her that is a Spring prays for grace because she knows she needs it, even thought she's not sure what grace is. She later says that the words from Mrs. Springs' hymn had spoken to her. She was blind, but now she sees that she needs to be with her real family, the people who raised her.
Mom and Dad, though emotionally and physically devastated at losing Janie, respect her decision to be with her birth family. The Spring parents are thrilled to have their daughter home and do their best to fit her into their chaotic, crowded home and life. They attempt to be understanding when Janie's comments about her other parents are hurtful.
Other belief systems
Hannah joins a cult, which is briefly explained as a sort of religious group that brainwashes its members and directs all aspects of their lives. Anything uttered by the cult leader was Truth, and everything else was corruption.
Around the dinner table, the Springs (parents included) discuss the sort of revenge they'd like to get on Hannah for ruining their lives. Jodie and Stephen decide to act on their desire for revenge by hunting for Hannah and turning her in to the police.
Stephen knows kids who believe in ESP, that one spirit could communicate with another. He knows it isn't true, because he saw how hard his mother tried and failed to communicate with his lost sister.
Janie says her boyfriend's name is like a talisman for her, making her happy again when she's sad.
The Lord's name is used in vain several times.
Reeve, her boyfriend, repeatedly alludes to his fantasies about Janie and how much he wants her sexually. He's frustrated because whenever he wants to move further physically, she just wants to talk. He thinks about how great it is to be old enough to shave. He realizes that sex will be better, though more difficult to get, than razors. When Janie sees Reeve for the first time after moving in with the Springs, she jumps in his lap and showers him with kisses. Janie asks Reeve what love really is, and he replies that love does not involve talking. Watching Reeve and Janie, Jodie imagines their mother talking to Janie about safe sex, or more likely, no sex. She wonders if Janie has already had sex, and she wishes her sister would confide in her about such things.
The Springs are glad to learn that Janie wasn't tortured or raped when she was abducted. A detective on the case tells the Springs many children are abducted for sexual purposes. He also tells them Hannah was arrested a few years earlier for prostitution.
Iowa Teen Book Award, 1996
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- How did you feel about the Springs' desire to get revenge on Hannah?
How would you have felt if you were in their place?
How did the kids resolve their desire for revenge?
What does the Bible say about revenge?
- What role does fear play in the Springs' lives?
How is it like another person living in their house? In what ways does fear dictate your decisions and actions?
- What are Reeve's good and bad qualities as a boyfriend?
Is his statement true that love does not involve talking? Explain.
How do you define love?
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