13 Little Blue Envelopes (#1) by Maureen Johnson

Published: December 21st 2010
Goodreads badgePublisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 322
Format: Book
Genre: Young Adult
★   ★   ★   ★  – 4 Stars

Inside little blue envelope 1 are $1,000 and instructions to buy a plane ticket.
In envelope 2 are directions to a specific London flat.
The note in envelope 3 tells Ginny: Find a starving artist.
Because of envelope 4, Ginny and a playwright/thief/ bloke–about–town called Keith go to Scotland together, with somewhat disastrous–though utterly romantic–results. But will she ever see him again?
Everything about Ginny will change this summer, and it’s all because of the 13 little blue envelopes.

This book is very much an American in Europe. I suppose you could describe this book as a travel/coming of age story, but not really. It is definitely a travel story, and a rather well done one; but it feels like a coming of age story but it doesn’t at the same time. It’s a complex emotion. Reading this book does give you a deep urge to go to all of these places Ginny explores, Johnson has captured the ‘lost in a big city’ atmosphere very well. She also manages to replicate the teenage point of view and voice in the writing.

13 Little Blue Envelopes is a story about seventeen year old Ginny who is sent 13 letters from her aunt, these then send her on a quest at her aunt’s will. The idea behind this story was really good, it was different and mysterious. You certainly want to try and figure out why these letters have been sent, and where it could all possibly lead for most of the book.
Upon opening her first letter Ginny is off overseas with a set of rules and instructions, and begins an enlightening yet bizarre adventure. I can’t say a lot of young women her age would be allowed to go off on a bizarre unexplained trip alone to Europe with no contact or plan on what to do, but if we ignore that fact, the rest of the story worked reasonably well. It was definitely addictive.

Despite travelling through the UK and Europe, Ginny is not doing the tourist visit. The destinations her aunt wants her to see or experience are partly sites, but for a lot of it it is personal or meaningful places she wants to share with Ginny. The good news is though while Ginny isn’t intentionally seeking out these famous sites she manages to hear a lot about them and see a few as well. In that sense you do get to hear about the great sites of London and Edinburgh and Amsterdam.

This story is certainly engaging and mysterious because while you are given the facts, and you are sure you know the facts, the events are still confusing. In this I think Johnson instantly gets you in because you know the impossible and because of this you must see how it ends.

From very early on it made me extremely envious of people in Europe and the UK that they can just duck to Scotland and be home in London a few hours later with no issue. Johnson captures the experience well through Ginny’s perspective, but it wasn’t even how it was being told, just that it was being described to us makes it desirable. Oh sometimes Australia I disapprove of your sea girted land.

It was interesting to try and understand Ginny, she seemed smart, though naive to a point. She did not know what a fox was, which I thought was odd for an American, and she seemed to experience all the clichés of the world, and pointed these out as she went. Aside from the great descriptions of the places, Ginny herself sometimes failed to engage with me, especially when she was more focused on the letters and trying to figure out what she was doing, it seems unreal, but also understandable. Another complex emotion.

There are a lot of descriptions, and everything is described: people, places, clothes, emotions. And all well suited for Ginny’s age. What I noticed as I read was how skilled Johnson is at depicting voices. When we read the letters the tone of voice is very different and it is clearly a different person. The contrast and absolute separation of the two makes you forget this is still just one Maureen Johnson writing for both sides.

There was a line in there that made me think of Mulan, there was also this line: “It was hard to figure out how a pineapple could end up in a situation like that”, and once more we need to point out that there was a re-ignition of my envious and glarey eyed hatred at Europeans for the ability to catch a train through a dozen different countries. I mean I love Australia and all but…trains, across Europe! Just like that!

When I finished this book I instantly went looking for the sequel because the ending leaves you wanting more. You don’t necessarily need more because it concludes rather ok and in a surprising fashion, but with a sequel available it definitely means you must continue. Apparently Maureen Johnson wrote the sequel from fan demand so that’s a good indication of its popularity. Whether we will get what we want is another story altogether.

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