52 in 52: 13 Little Blue Envelopes, by Maureen Johnson

[This review is based on the paperback edition published by the HarperTeen imprint of HarperCollins Publishers in 2005.]

Here’s the deal:
Ginny Blackstone’s “crazy” aunt Peg has recently passed away when, out of the blue, Ginny receives an interesting package containing a backpack and 13 little blue envelopes. Within the first envelope, Peg has enclosed some money and instructions to pack up the backpack and head to London on what will become a whirlwind trip through Europe. Ginny meets some very interesting people, including a man named Richard, who has a deep connection to Peg; Keith, an eccentric theater student upon whom Ginny develops a crush; and Knud, an acquaintance of Peg’s who lives on a houseboat docked in Copenhagen. Ginny simultaneously does some sightseeing around various European countries and learns a great deal about Peg, herself, and about life in general. On the twelfth stop, Ginny’s backpack — containing the 13th envelope — is stolen. Will it be lost forever? Will she ever discover the contents of the 13th little blue envelope?

My thoughts:
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of Maureen Johnson until I learned that she would be delivering the keynote address at the BEA Bloggers conference. The moment she crossed my radar, I decided it’d be a good idea to read at least one of her books before attending the conference, to be vaguely familiar with her work if nothing else. I’m so happy I did…and I’m even happier that I chose to read 13 Little Blue Envelopes. I was initially worried that I wouldn’t finish the book in time for BEA, simply because I had several other books on my reading list at that point and I would need to push them back to make room for it. It didn’t help that I started reading the book two days before the conference was set to start and that I was trying to get organized for the trip.

Once I started reading, though, I couldn’t put the book down. Conference organization be damned!

Of all the characters in the book, the two main male characters were easily my favorites. Richard, the lonely British gentleman with whom Ginny first connects upon embarking on this mystery trip, stole my heart from the moment I met him. It was pretty easy to determine that he had some kind of secret that, hopefully, would emerge by the end of the book. (Thankfully, it did…and what a secret it was!) Keith, meanwhile, was a funny, crazy theater geek who reminded me of the guys I knew while rehearsing for and performing in our high school’s annual musicals. I didn’t love that he kept walking away from Ginny, and that their “thing” never truly became a thing, you know what I mean? Ginny herself, in my opinion, was equal parts relatable and annoying — or, in other words, like every American teenager (or maybe every teenager, period?) that ever lived. We’ve all been there; don’t bother denying that you were better than that. You were just as bad, if not worse than Ginny. That’s part of the fun of 13 Little Blue Envelopes for those of us who’ve moved beyond our teens: nostalgia for how immature and irritating we once were, and gratitude for (hopefully) maturing as we’ve aged. For teens, it’s all about relating to Ginny in her current state of mind and her experiences. They may not be traveling the world alone on the vague instructions of a dead relative, but they’re learning to deal with emotions, sexuality, and gradual maturity.

As for the plot itself, I found myself utterly fascinated, but with one slight issue: where were Ginny’s parents in all of this? I know for a fact that, dying wish of my beloved aunt or not, my mother would never have allowed my teenage self to embark on a journey like this one alone. Yet, we never really hear anything about Ginny’s parents at any point during the story (with the exception of flashbacks to Peg’s past). That aspect of the plot required me to suspend my disbelief, which I was willing to do in order to discover whether the journey itself would be interesting to me, and fortunately it was. Ginny finds herself at random spots all over Europe: visiting the statues of the Vestal Virgins in Rome, sleeping on a park bench in Paris, and swimming in her underwear off the shores of Greece, just to name a few. All of these stops serve a purpose, and it’s up to Ginny to connect the dots and figure out what that purpose is. I won’t spoil the lesson, but I will say that I was incredibly jealous. I would love to visit several of the countries Ginny found herself in, and it was fun (albeit a bit surreal) to experience this incredible vacation of sorts vicariously through a fictional character. I wish I could afford that trip! But I digress.

So would I recommend this book?
13 Little Blue Envelopes is a truly fun read! While geared to tweens and teens, grown women (like myself) can enjoy Ginny’s story, so I would certainly recommend it. By the way, a sequel entitled The Last Little Blue Envelope is also available; I need to get my hands on it and find out how the story ends!

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Click here to purchase 13 Little Blue Envelopes on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.