August 22, 2006
I love the idea behind Maureen Johnson's 13 Little Blue Envelopes, one of the books nominated for the ALA Teens' Top Ten (an instant source of a new end-of-summer booklist, by the way, if you're short on reading material).
The idea is that Ginny--seventeen years old and miraculously free for summer gallivanting--receives a packet from her artist aunt containing 13 little blue envelopes, all numbered. She can only open them one at a time, and she must complete the task inside before opening the next. The first envelope contains $1,000 and instructions for buying a plane ticket to London. Subsequent envelopes direct Ginny all around Europe, where she meets a cute struggling London playwright, a wood carver who lives in a houseboat, an Italian student on the make, an eccentric Scottish artist with a fetish for small toys, and many others.
The cast of characters for this book is colorful and ever-changing, and Ginny goes on a journey of self-discovery at the same time that she's journeying around Europe and learning more about her aunt. All the little details about the places she goes, all the experiences--both positive and negative--that make traveling alone a unique experience; these things ring true in 13 Little Blue Envelopes. As someone who spent two months working in London while in college, I definitely sympathize with that lost feeling you get when you're wandering around, looking for adventure, but you don't really know anybody to go have adventures with. Sometimes it leads you to wonder or disaster; sometimes you just end up...bored or frustrated.
Ginny, however, is on her own adventure, planned out by her aunt, and what she learns surprises her as well as the reader. I enjoyed this--it was sort of a fantasy journey, in a way. I don't know if it was intended to have that ethereal quality, but it did, at the same time that it doesn't skip the gory details of youth hostels and living out of a backpack. It was an interesting balance. I think part of what made it ethereal or fantastical for me was the one sort-of-semi-flaw that I couldn't get past: Ginny's parents. More specifically, their almost total absence from the story.
My main question was how in the world did she ever convince them to let her go on this trip in the first place? It's made clear at the beginning that they don't quite approve of her renegade aunt, and moreover, one of the "requirements" of the adventure is that Ginny telephone or e-mail nobody while she's off on her journey. But how she convinced them to agree to this scheme is glossed over. I did keep returning to that as I read the book. I couldn't help it. I kept wondering why they didn't insist she at least call when she arrived, or why they didn't call out the cavalry if they didn't hear from her for days on end. Anyway, it's not so crucial a thing that it mars the story at all; what's important is that they did agree, somehow, and that her traveling on her own is an experience like no other. The reader, too, gets to enjoy her adventure...from the safety of the armchair.