Janet McDonald (1953-)
Janet McDonald told SATA: "The only life that is not disappointing is the one imagined. So I write to rejoice, revel, and rebel." Her first book, however, Project Girl: An Inspiring Story of a Black Woman's Coming-of-Age, dealt not with an imagined life but with her own hardscrabble youth. McDonald grew up in a public housing project in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. She and her large family lived in an apartment that was small and a neighborhood that was dangerous. But she was blessed with a brilliant mind, and her parents harbored dreams of great success. With her above-average intelligence quotient and her unrelenting drive, McDonald managed to make it to Vassar College, an elite and exclusive institution.
In college, McDonald realized that she had dual personas, one being the "Vassar girl" and the other being the "project girl." As the Vassar girl, McDonald was ambitious and bright. As the project girl, McDonald was troubled. Although she was eminently capable of meeting the intellectual challenges at Vassar, she was unable to meet the emotional demands. "I was indeed a strange hybrid of my disparate experience: a naïve Ivy league project girl whose potential for success seemed repeatedly to collide with an internal rage," she wrote in her book. McDonald began to abuse drugs at Vassar, and after being raped, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was arrested for setting her law school dormitory on fire. She recovered, finished law school, and eventually began practicing international and corporate law in Paris, having been one of very few Americans admitted to the bar in France. In 1999, she recorded those experiences in Project Girl.
McDonald told Thomas E. Kennedy, who interviewed her for Literary Review, that she had originally thought she would write a fictionalized account of her life, but quickly switched to "writing truths about myself that few knew. . . . I just wrote it as I felt it." She had kept extensive journals, which she found to be "an incredible resource that held me close to the actual events I described." Also, listening to music from each period of her life helped bring the past back to her. Kennedy praised the result of her efforts, writing, "In a time of memoirs, Janet McDonald's Project Girl . . . stands out amongst them." Her story, he said, "is one of metamorphosis, but it is no butterfly fairy tale—on the contrary, it is by turns touching, inspiring, humorous, hopeful, threatening, and terrifying."
Time critic Romesh Ratnesar remarked that McDonald "writes with lucidity and drama." New York Times reviewer Sara Ivry commented that McDonald's book shows "the strength of her perseverance and her spirit in her willingness to relive her traumas by writing about them." Arthur S. Hayes, writing in the ABA Journal, found Project Girl a "powerful, thoroughly engaging memoir," while Susan Tekulve, who critiqued it for Literary Review, described it as "an honest book about an individual's quest for identity," adding, "This book belongs in the hands of anyone who has been lost. Like a map, it leads and comforts those who leave home in search of a better place."
McDonald turned next to young adult fiction. "Fiction is how I really like to roll; you can explore any number of responses a person might have," she told Booklist interviewer Gillian Engberg. She explained to Engberg, "It is no stretch whatsoever for me to identify with teenagers in all their grandiose miseries and small joys—searching, screwing up, questioning, bugging out. I'm trying to find my way, too." Her first young adult book, Spellbound, focuses on Raven, a teenage girl growing up, like McDonald, in a public housing project in Brooklyn. Raven is a good student and hopes to go to college, but she becomes pregnant the first time she has sexual relations, so she drops out of high school to care for her baby. She has not given up on her ambitions, though, and at the urging of her older sister, who has a successful career as a paralegal, she enters a spelling bee that offers a college scholarship to the winner.
"McDonald doesn't judge or sugarcoat" her characters and their lives, observed Nell D. Beram in Horn Book; these characters include Aisha, Raven's best friend, who is also a single teenage mother but differs from Raven in that she appears content to stay in the project and collect welfare checks. McDonald "humanizes the individual people behind the stereotype of poor people who are 'project trash,'" commented Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman. Similarly, School Library Journal contributor Francisca Goldsmith praised McDonald for creating "a vital cast of characters." A Publishers Weekly critic found the book's ending "a little too pat," but allowed that "McDonald paints Raven's path to success as realistically rocky." Goldsmith concluded, "Among the shelves of novels about teenage girls dealing with unplanned babies, this is a standout."
Aisha becomes the central character in Chill Wind. Now nineteen, three years older than she was in Spellbound, she has had a second child and is about to lose her welfare benefits, as there is a limit to the time a person can receive them. An alternative is a "workfare" job, government-mandated employment for welfare recipients, but Aisha considers these assignments menial and tries other work options, including fashion modeling. Wherever she goes, her hot temper gets her into trouble, but eventually a stroke of luck puts her on the path to a prosperous career appearing in television commercials. Some critics took issue with this happy conclusion; Booklist's Rochman deemed it "much too easy and contrived," while Janet Gillen, a contributor to School Library Journal, called it a "fairy-tale ending" that "isn't particularly believable." Several reviewers did praise the story's characters and settings, though, with Rochman citing McDonald's "honesty, wit, and insight" and Gillen noting, "The language is real and believable." Horn Book contributor Beram, meanwhile, observed that "the novel is highly readable and rife with intimate, naturalistic glimpses of project life."
Sisters Keeba and Teesha Washington are the Brooklyn "project girls" who take center stage in Twists and Turns. Skilled at braiding hair, they decide to open a hairstyling salon after they finish high school. (Aisha of Spellbound and Chill Wind makes an appearance as the benefactor who lends the sisters the money for their venture.) The business encounters difficulties in the form of rent increases by the landlord and attacks by neighborhood vandals, and there are not always enough customers to keep it solvent. But Keeba and Teesha persevere, and they also receive help from friends and neighbors. A Kirkus Reviews critic thought the story "lacks focus and urgency," but praised McDonald's "convincing dialogue" and positive message. Booklist reviewer Rochman, however, found the novel "inspiring" in its depiction of the characters' persistence in the face of adversity, and also realistic. Kliatt Claire Rossner likewise commented that the novel rings true, saying, "The neighborhood seems real, as do the characters and their lives."
Biographical and Critical Sources
McDonald, Janet, Project Girl: An Inspiring Story of a Black Woman's Coming-of-Age, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux (New York, NY), 1999.
ABA Journal, April, 1999, Arthur S. Hayes, "The Thin Black Line," review of Project Girl, p. 81.
Booklist, November 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Spellbound, p. 76; February 15, 2002, Gillian Engberg, interview with Janet McDonald, p. 1026; September 1, 2002, Hazel Rochman, review of Chill Wind, p. 121; July, 2003, Hazel Rochman, review of Twists and Turns, p. 1886.
Horn Book, January-February, 2002, Nell D. Beram, review of Spellbound, p. 80; September-October, 2002, Nell D. Beram, review of Chill Wind, p. 576; September-October, 2003, Roger Sutton, review of Twists and Turns, p. 614.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2003, review of Twists and Turns, p. 966.
Kliatt, July, 2003, Claire Rosser, review of Twists and Turns, p. 14.
Library Journal, November 1, 1998, p. 97.
Literary Review, summer, 2001, Susan Tekulve, review of Project Girl, p. 799; summer, 2002, Thomas E. Kennedy, "Up from Brooklyn: An Interview with Janet McDonald," p. 704.
New York Times, February 7, 1999, Sara Ivry, review of Project Girl, p. 17.
Publishers Weekly, November 19, 2001, review of Spellbound, p. 68.
School Library Journal, September, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Spellbound, p. 230; November, 2002, Janet Gillen, review of Chill Wind, p. 173; September, 2003, Sharon Morrison, review of Twists and Turns, p. 217.
Time, March 1, 1999, Romesh Ratnesar, review of Project Girl, p. 81.
Janet McDonald Home Page, http://www.projectgirl.com/ (January 26, 2004).
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Al Loving Biography - Loved Painting from Early Age to Alice McGill Biography - PersonalJanet McDonald (1953-) Biography - Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Work in Progress