Book Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson

This title is part of a book club I’m in, in which teachers evaluate young adult (YA) books for use in the classroom. The goal is for teachers to have resources available to help students choose books they would enjoy. To that end, I’m evaluating this novel not only on its own merit but on its appropriateness for classroom use.

20170807_193053The novel follows a shy girl named Ginny. She’s in high school and is generally quiet and uninvolved. But her late Aunt Peg has left her 13 little blue envelopes with instructions for traveling Europe with just a single backpack, some cash, and a bank card. Though she always liked her aunt, Ginny exists at the opposite end of the personality spectrum. Whereas Ginny is quiet and hesitant to try new things, Aunt Peg was always the artist: although kind, Peg often skipped from one place to another and let her capricious sense of artistry take her through life—even through a bout of being penniless in Europe. In the envelopes she leaves for her niece, she shares tidbits of her life and explains part of her reasoning behind her strange behavior. She also sends her niece on a wild quest across Europe.

The novel is told in three ways: mostly we hear of Ginny’s adventures in third person limited. I found this refreshing, as many YA books stay in first person. But the third person voice stayed relatively simple, imparting information without editorializing too much. We also see Aunt Peg’s letters, so we get to hear a bit of her voice even though she has died before the story begins. Finally, we read a few of the letters Ginny writes to her best friend back home in America.

I enjoyed the fact that Ginny is simply an average high school student. She isn’t overly angsty or angry, and she isn’t especially brave. Going to Europe and following each envelope one at a time, without knowing what the next instructions will be, contradicts everything she is. I can certainly relate. While I would have been excited to travel Europe in high school, I would have been terrified to do so on my own—without any parents or friends or plan. I also liked that Ginny’s decisions were not always the best ones, but they weren’t catastrophic either. In other words, the book was realistic.

The chapters were short, and although Ginny bounced around Europe, the pace was fast enough so I didn’t feel bogged down by any one piece of her adventure. There were few difficult vocabulary words to stand as obstacles to YA readers, but I never felt that the language was simple enough to be condescending or feel “beneath” me.

From a content perspective, the book is PG-13. Though there are a few romantic scenes, they only involve kissing, and nothing is described too explicitly. At one point, Ginny ends up in Amsterdam, and although there could have been scandalous things she could have seen, she ended up with an American family (parents with two kids of their own), who kept her on a strict schedule that prevented her from taking the book in a more R-rated direction.

There was some subtle symbolism, such as a semi-temporary tattoo Ginny receives as part of her adventure. The artist tells her it’s best that the first one doesn’t last—unless she wants it to. This happens in the same scene that Ginny introduces the artist to her sort-of boyfriend. The theme of finding love follows us through the story as we learn about Aunt Peg’s relationship as well. But none of the symbols were over-the-top enough to distract from the novel. Art and its subjective value plays a prominent role as Ginny travels Europe to enjoy famous works of art as well as art created by Aunt Peg.

I was hoping this was a stand-alone novel because I think it works as a self-enclosed narrative. But of course when I turned to the last page, I saw a preview for the next book in the series, The Last Little Blue Envelope. I’ll admit, as a teenager, I would have read the next book right away. As a grown-up, I think there is something to be said for leaving the “next chapter” to the reader’s imagination.

In a nutshell: a fun, fast read that introduces the reader to various adventures in Europe while following a teenager on her quest toward self-improvement. The language is not too challenging for a hesitant reader, and the fast-paced journey will hold the interest of most teenagers.