Review: Three Black Swans, Caroline B. Cooney

Indie Sister and I are painfully addicted to Caroline B. Cooney’s young adult novels. Especially Indie Sister. Indie Sister would walk five miles in the snow to get a Caroline B. Cooney novel she hasn’t read yet. Over the Christmas holiday, she even wrote a letter to Caroline B. Cooney, although I suspect Caroline B. Cooney will read her letter and think that Indie Sister is eight years old, mentally challenged, or mercilessly mocking her (excerpt: “My other favorite of your books was Code Orange, because scabs are gross — ew”). But in truth, Indie Sister unironically loves Caroline B. Cooney, which is why I had to get her a CBC book for Christmas. The real reason I didn’t read Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares before giving it to Mumsy is that I was too busy reading Three Black Swans before giving it to Indie Sister.

If you have heard of Caroline B. Cooney, it is probably not because of her actually best books, Among Friends and Twenty Pageants Later and The Girl Who Invented Romance (don’t judge, they are amazing), but for her Face on the Milk Carton series, about the girl who sees a picture of her four-year-old self in a missing persons ad on the side of a milk carton. Three Black Swans is cut from the same cloth.

In response to a science assignment to invent and perpetuate a hoax, Missy convinces her older cousin Claire (who goes to a different school in a different state) to come to Missy’s school and pretend that she is Missy’s long-lost twin. The video where they announce this lie becomes a viral hit on YouTube. When Missy and Claire’s parents see it, they are strangely upset, and Missy and Claire become gradually more and more certain that their parents are hiding something. Meanwhile, in far-away Connecticut or someplace (I don’t remember, but Connecticut’s a good guess, all of Caroline B. Cooney’s books are set in the Connecticut suburbs), a girl called Genevieve Candler sees a video of two girls who look so much like her it’s eerie. PLOT TWIST.

Some reasons Three Black Swans was unlike many of Caroline B. Cooney’s other books:

1. Technology. The classic Caroline B. Cooney books are set in the 1980s and 1990s, and as such do not have new-fangled gadgets like the Twitter and the Facebook. Indie Sister was hugely displeased to find a recent edition of The Girl Who Invented Romance that had been updated with cell phones and a reference to abortion. I don’t mind, but it does feel weird for Caroline B. Cooney, she of the milk carton radio shows, to be talking about viral Youtube videos. But she still says “he logged on to the internet.”

2. A non-evil character likes New York City and enjoys visiting it. In Caroline B. Cooney’s books, the city is nearly always made out of evil and death. In one of Cooney’s early books, the evil twin and her tear-eating boyfriend practice their evilness by driving poor little white Connecticut girls into the inner city, letting them out of the car, and then leaving them there. All alone! With the rats and chain-wearing thugs! (Chains and rats, my hand to God.) One girl they do this to goes insane. Forever.

3. Actually, the lack of evil altogether was strange to me. Even the nasty characters in Three Black Swans had some redeeming nuance eventually. Caroline B. Cooney loves talking about evil. At least she did in her earlier books, which is all we’ve been reading lately. In one book, Don’t Blame the Music, the wicked sister (not the one with the tear-tasting boyfriend; different book, different evil sister) swipes the blanket that generations of her family members have worked on creating, and cuts it up to use as a seat-cover in her evil boyfriend’s van, where she and her evil boyfriend will have sex on it while smoking the marijuana cigarettes. That’s when the nice sister realizes that the wicked sister is, in fact, evil, a realization totally borne out when the evil sister tries to set the nice sister on fire. On fire.

I have just mentioned several of the silliest things in all of Caroline B. Cooney’s books, but don’t let that put you off. When her books are at their best, they’re frilly and fun and full of cheerful high school kids with pretty hair giving each other cute nicknames. Really, Caroline B. Cooney excels at nicknames. Over Christmas break I read like five Caroline B. Cooney books, and if a certain PaperbackSwap member hadn’t been such a slacker I could have read six.

49 thoughts on “Review: Three Black Swans, Caroline B. Cooney

    • No no no, you wouldn’t be making a commitment. Her books aren’t all in a series. I just read a bunch of them at Christmas because I was in the mood. They’re fun light reads. My reservation would be that I’m not sure you can read them for the first time as an adult. They are pretty silly.

  1. This sounds like one I should “give” to my daughter so I get to read it, too. She is disdainful of YA in general, now (at the ripe old age of 17) but likes an easy read now and then, as we all do, unless it’s an easy read that has dated technology and then, well, what does it have to do with real life?

    • Okay, so yeah, skip CBC’s early books. Among Friends is legitimately pretty good, but it’s good for middle-grade kids, and perhaps your college-bound girl would sneer at it. :p

  2. Wow, here’s an author I haven’t read in a long time. I loved Cooney was I was younger and, yes, I even wrote her long fan letters (I still have all the responses in a box somewhere). The Janie books are definitely what first interested me in her but Cooney won my never-ending allegiance with Flight #116 is Down. I LOVED that book for no particularly sound artistic reasons. I also have some vague memories of her time travel books but, surprisingly, those were never favourites with me.

    • You did? And she wrote back to you but won’t write back to Indie Sister? I’m crushed. :p

      Yeah, I was unmoved by the time travel books, and I have yet to like any of her historical fiction (I think she wrote one about Troy?). I like the ones about girls in Connecticut suburbs who want boyfriends. :p

  3. It seems like Cooney has got it going on in a lot of ways! Setting sisters on fire? Thugs wearing chains? Lots of things I wouldn’t expect from a book that aims itself at the YA sector! I would like to try this book, and take your recommendations of Cooney really seriously. If both you and Indie sister like these books, how can I go wrong? Once again, your review was endlessly entertaining. Finding your blog was like finding a rare gem.

    • Tchyeah! She tries to set her SISTER on FIRE. It’s very silly.

      And you are very sweet. #internethug (I say that sometimes and it always looks like internet thug. Not what I’m after though Caroline B Cooney might be.)

  4. To be fair, CBC’s horror novels are clearly purposefully over the top – you WANT your wicked characters to be totally wicked, if it’s horror. Her other YA novels actually often give a fairly nuanced view of the characters. I think what you and Indie Daughter love about these novels is that the narrators are often quite self-aware (a favorite trait for both of you).

    I [quite unironically] like that CBC’s plots usually turn on the ability of the (usually teenage, female) characters’ ability to finally confront an aspect of their personality which is self-defeating and to accept responsibility for changing/dealing with it. And also, I find her characteristically choppy writing style bizarrely soothing.

    • It’s hardly horror. Freeze Tag? It’s too silly to be horror!

      Plus, her characters are sometimes self-aware in the sense that they realize they are ditzy, but never self-aware in the sense that they know they are Connecticut white girls and there’s no reason to be threatened by people who are not. So I’m not sure that holds water.

  5. A science project to invent and perpetuate a hoax? I may have issues with that premise. However, I read two CBC books in the fall and quite enjoyed them. Keep reviewing them to remind me to check the library.

    Love Mumsy’s analysis of why you and your sisters love the books.

    Also, I remember noticing that Code Orange had lots of cell phone references and internet chat rooms and the like. Since I don’t have a cell phone, and I’m old, I didn’t notice if the references were dated at all.

    • I may have issues with the premise of identical triplets separated at birth under shady circumstances and then finding each other again at age fifteen or however old they are.

      I’m glad you liked Caroline B Cooney — since I’m always happy when people do, and also because it makes me think I was mistaken to suppose you can’t appreciate her if you read her for the first time as an adult. I’ll try to review another one of her books soon. My sister is sending me one by post.

  6. I remember reading Caroline B. Cooney when I was younger! I devoured the books though the only ones I really remember is The Girl on the Milk Cartoon. Just your mention of technology made me take a step back. Cooney AND technology?! I don’t know. . .

    • I know, right? Janie couldn’t even go on the internet to find out more about her little self! I think she goes to the library and looks for stuff on microfilm. Things were different then.

  7. Okay, I have to admit I LOVE your tags for this post and am cracking up.

    You know what, I am on the CBC love train too. She rocks, and I love her stories improbable though they are.

    ALSO, one of my favorites is her Christmas story, What Child Is This, I remember my 8th grade self weeping and weeping over the foster kid in that book.

    • Word! I appreciate your CBC support!

      I haven’t read What Child Is This. Indie Sister got it for Christmas (two copies, actually), and she said it made her cry too.

  8. This made me giggle, so I may have to check her books out, but mostly I’m here to say I finally read Howl’s Moving Castle thanks all to you and I LOVED it. I must now acquire more Diana Wynne Jones, my new favourite comfort author! (Thank you technology and Jenny combined for the perfect book recommendation.)

  9. OH MY GOSH. I loved Caroline B Cooney in middle school. I absolutely devoured her time travelling series with the girl named Annie Lockwood (Lockhart?). Oh man! I haven’t thought about her in years. Maybe it’s time for a re-read.

    • It is never not time for a Caroline B. Cooney reread. I’m glad you like the Annie Lockwood books. I was unmoved by them, as much as I deeply wanted to like them, so I’m glad somebody does.

  10. I hadn’t even heard of her before! I need to read her. I’m on a quest to learn everything there is to know about YA so that someday somebody will give me a job (this is only a slight exaggeration :P)

    • Ana, you simply can’t get a job as a YA librarian until you’ve read Caroline B. Cooney. (I just made up that rule.) She has written fifty thousand books. Read Among Friends. I feel like Twenty Pageants later might piss you off.

  11. Nymeth, you MUST. No YA-lover’s life can be complete without CBC. The Girl Who Invented Romance is just lovely, and Among Friends has some actual weight to it. And Claire’s love for Flight 116 is Down is fully justified.

  12. I’ve only JUST realized that Caroline B. Cooney wrote both THE FACE ON THE MILK CARTON (which I read… last year? in 2009? Sometime in the past, at any rate) and BOTH SIDES OF TIME (which I read a veeeerrrrrry long time ago because my cousin gave it to me for my birthday, with a package of Oreo cookies that I was instructed to eat as a read. I did so, with positive results).

    I’m slow on the uptake. And I’m afraid this has nothing whatsoever to do with your review, beyond the whole Caroline B. Cooney connection. I am also rambling and discursive.

  13. Am I risking eternal banishment from your blog by admitting that I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by Caroline B. Cooney, at least that I can recall?

    • You are not risking even temporary banishment for my blog. Her books aren’t unmissable the way, like, Diana Wynne Jones’s books are, or Patrick Ness’s. They’re just fun, and I read them A LOT when I was a kid.

  14. You know, I was just the other day trying to remember what it was that the Evil Twin and her boyfriend did to those girls, because I thought they just let them out of the car but I didn’t think that could be right. I love how everyone in the entire world knew the Evil Twin was evil, except for her twin.

    You know what weirds me out about the Milk Carton books? That Janie is like two years younger than everybody thinks she is, and yet she’s all normal and popular and this has never been an issue.

    • I love it that my sister and I are not the only ones who read that stupid book with the evil twin and John Pear who ate tears.

      I thought she was just one year younger. I think that could be okay. I had a friend in grade school who had skipped a grade, and it wasn’t an issue. (For me — I don’t know, maybe she really felt the age difference.)

    • Kim, it is so weird. Thank you for appreciating the weirdness! Did you read her other books? The Milk Carton ones were her most famous books, but I never thought they were the best.

  15. I probably would have liked her books if I’d actually been a YA when I first read them. I have to agree with Katy — I read the Milk Carton series a couple of years ago, and the plot holes were just too much for my doubtful self. How did her parents get her in school with no birth certificate or Social Security number? I know I should suspend disbelief, but come on.

    • When you’re a kid, and having never had to worry about getting into the school system, it never occurs to you that they would need a birth certificate (et al) to get her into school. That hole, at least, you would have missed had you been in the target age bracket, I think.

      • Surprisingly, it not only can be done, it is done all the time. One of my nephews was an undocumented child (for reasons too complex to go into) and he attended public schools for most of his young life – and when he was home-schooled, it wasn’t because he couldn’ty get into public school, it was because the local schools were terrible.

  16. Oh man. I remember The Face on the Milk Carton and how I wished I was really a kidnapped princess, stolen and given to a loving family, only to be discovered one day and given my rightful place as a princess once more.

    I gave up on my dream of becoming a princess when I realized that I would have to marry a prince to do so, but still, a girl can hope.

    That said, I don’t know that I’d want to read her other books. I worry they wouldn’t stand up to the perspective I’ve developed since I last read The Face on the Milk Carton.

  17. Mumsy,

    I have no idea what you are talking about. What I love about CBC’s characters is that they are amazingly near-sighted. It’s like a window into the mind of the most painfully normal little white girl in the universe. Then strange things happen to her, but she always comes out okay in the end, and if she went anywhere scary during the novel, she heads back to Connecticut. New Year’s Eve was great because there is a WACKY character (who wasn’t evil)! In my letter to CBC, I implored her to write more wacky characters. Time will tell if my wonderful letter will move CBC and influence her writerly whims. If she writes back, I will scan it and send it to everyone. Everyone! If she encloses an autographed photo, I will create a little shrine to her in my hallway-filled-with-books.

    Your most beloved child

    • I am not way too hard on it. That book was awful and ridiculous, and that link is disgusting. Gross! I am sad you showed me that story! Now I’m going to be paranoid when I check books out of the library because WHAT IF they have scabs inside?

  18. You don’t have to be a Young Adult to appreciate Caroline B. Cooney’s books. I happen to think her books, “A Friend at Midnight,” and “The Voice on the Radio,” are among the best I’ve ever read. I really enjoyed the book “Three Black Swans,” although I think it could have been improved with a bit of rewriting. By the way, I’ll be 62 in July.


  19. Oh, I forgot to say I really appreciated CBC’s description of the two sisters talking to each other all the time. My wife and her sister probably talk (long distance) at least once each week, and they think nothing of talking for four or five hours at a time, or from 9 P.M. through 3 A.M.. And when they talk, they are laughing all the time. It really makes me smile to think they can have such a good relationship with each other. And no, they are not twins, but are about two years apart in age.

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