Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: 13 Little Blue Envelopes

Every girl should have a quirky but loving aunt, a free spirit unencumbered by the responsibilities of motherhood who encourages her niece to think outside the box and embrace the unknown. I had one. So did seventeen year-old Ginny Blackstone, in Maureen Johnson’s 13 Little Blue Envelopes (HarperTeen, 2006).

This whirlwind of a book begins with a letter to Ginny from her Aunt Peg, an artist. Aunt Peg has enclosed $1,000 cash for a passport, a one-way ticket from New York to London, and a backpack, along with four rules and instructions to pick up a package at 4th Noodle, the Chinese restaurant under her old apartment in New York City. The package turns out to be a packet of thirteen letters, the first of which is to be opened on the plane.

This kind of action was just something Ginny might have expected from Aunt Peg, who had mysteriously left New York City two years earlier for an open-ended trip to Europe.
But Aunt Peg had died of a fast-moving brain tumor three months earlier. 
Guided by the letters and Aunt Peg’s friends, Ginny visits London, Edinburgh, Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, the Greek island of Corfu, and finally, back to London. Along the way, Ginny collects pieces of information about her beloved and enigmatic aunt, finds romance, and learns something about herself.

At times, Johnson’s plot seems a little implausible. Would Ginny’s practical mother really allow her daughter to go to Europe solo on an adventure orchestrated by her unpredictable sister Peg? My advice is to suspend disbelief and just enjoy Ginny’s European adventure. Let go, as Aunt Peg might have said, and live a little. Harrod’s of London, Rome’s narrow and bustling streets, Parisian caf├ęs, the canals of Amsterdam, a trip on a modern-day Danish Viking’s houseboat to see the windmills, the impossibly blue waters of Corfu—all come to life in Johnson’s vivid, lively descriptions.

Why am I recommending a book that came out in 2006? Because the sequel to “13 Little Blue Envelopes,” titled The Last Little Blue Envelope, was just released in April of this year (that one’s for another review!). If you want to join Ginny on her next European adventure, you really owe it to yourself to read the first one. Perfect summer reading for high school girls with a little wanderlust but no Aunt Peg to send them to Europe.

And now a note about what I think was brilliant marketing. Maureen Johnson offered a free download of 13 Little Blue Envelopes to coincide with the publication of the above-mentioned sequel, The Last Little Blue Envelope, betting (rightly, in my case), that reading the first book would motivate people to buy the second. This seems like a great strategy for authors of series books. I rarely (never?) pick up a book mid-series without having read the first one. What do you think? 

Based on my review originally published in The News-Gazette, June 26, 2011. 

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