Janet McDonald


Janet McDonald once wrote about her mis-adventure with psychic Sylvia Brown. The experience was much less than she’d anticipated and she spoke of the sick, sinking feeling that came over her as the reality that the reading was more scam than paranormal science.

It didn’t shock me that McDonald consulted a psychic. Many of us are curious about our futures, even if we never take steps to actually peer into them.

What shocked me was that the author’s questions for the psychic were more aligned with “what’s the greater meaning of life” than – will my book (at the time Project Girl) be best selling? Or, how do I make them best selling?

Perhaps as an attorney – analytical and practical by profession, and a member of Mensa, McDonald knew such answers weren’t for her to know since they couldn’t be controlled. So it would have been a waste of a question. Or maybe, McDonald knew that one of the secrets of being a sane author was letting her stories speak for themselves.

Perhaps it’s as it should be. A search on Janet McDonald’s name yields more eulogies than coverage during her successful writing run.

So, the stories speaking it is.

Before she passed of cancer in 2007, at the age of 53, Janet McDonald blessed the literary world with six YA books. A self-proclaimed project girl, she rose from them – living in Paris at the time of her death, and never let the stories of young people who were products of the projects go unheard.

From the trilogy of stories that followed the young ladies of the Hillside House housing project, to her two “boy” books – Brother Hood and Harlem Hustle, McDonald’s stories always focused on rising above circumstances. Although her characters were urban, McDonald’s stories are far from crying inner city blues. Instead, they focus on the character’s inner strength and how they used their surroundings to succeed.

We celebrate the work of Janet McDonald in hopes that her books find their way into the hands of young readers, today and beyond.

Project Girl – McDonald’s debut was a memoir about her days as a bookish teen Brooklynite. Hard hitting and real, the book covers her heroin use, her love affair with Paris and life while being Black in the Ivy League world of Vassar and Columbia University.

Spellbound – McDonald’s YA fiction debut about a sixteen year old, teen mom who sees a spelling bee as her ticket to upward mobility.

Chill Wind - With two kids and sixty days before her welfare benefits run out, teen protag Aisha Ingram turns to modeling for “big” girls.

Twists & Turns - McDonald shows readers that a little skill goes a long way as the Washington sisters set out to use hair braiding as their ticket to a successful life after high school.

Brother Hood – Straddled between life at prep school and life back at home in Harlem, Nate Whiteley faces the pros and cons of “keeping it real.”

Harlem Hustle – Eric “Harlem Hustle” wants to find a way out of the streets and Hip Hop may be the answer. But finding the strength to leave what you know, behind, becomes the real test.

Off-Color – Flipping the script on her in-the-hood take, McDonald tells the story of Cameron, a white teen who moves from a working class neighborhood to public housing. A fresh spin on acceptance and fitting in.

The Buzz on Janet McDonald’s Work

“One of the best of the many recent stories about teens in the city projejcts, this first novel is read-aloud funny, even as it tells the harsh truth about how hard it is to break free.” –Starred, Booklist (Spell bound)

“McDonald deserves kudos for her gritty, unsentimental portrait of day-to-day life in the projects.” –Kirkus Reviews (Chill Wind)

“Janet McDonald brings the dreams and personal battles of the Hillbrook Houses residents to life…The author offers an even balance of hardship and humor as the determined teens combat their many obstacles.” –Publishers Weekly (Twists and Turns)

“A vibrant spectrum of oral expression that brings both Hustle and New York City vividly to life.” –The Horn Book (Harlem Hustle)

“Readers will enjoy Cameron’s attitude which, despite her roller-coaster moments of anger and sadness, is relentlessly upbeat as she explores what it means to be black—and white.” —The Chicago Tribune (Off-Color)

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10 Responses to Janet McDonald

  1. Kelly says:

    Wow! What an amazing profile. I want to run to the store and buy some of Janet McDonald’s books right now. I’ve heard of them, but haven’t read any of them yet. After reading the spotlight, I know I’m missing out on some powerful reads. I’m drawn to her books like Spellbound and Chill Wind because of what you describe: ” . . . they focus on the character’s inner strength and how they used their surroundings to succeed.”

  2. Jeannine M. says:

    Okay, not sure whether to be mad or sad. You have featured a couple of amazing people who I never knew about only to realize they have passed away. I think it just makes me more sad. Another reason why this project is so vital. Thanks for all you do. If I was still teaching I would certainly use this series in my classroom. Don’t know if you guys have or have though about sending something out to schools. This is a great resource. Once I am published and you guys invite me to hang with you, I will work on that!!! I like being with the cool kids!!

  3. LaTonya says:

    I have said I was going to revisit Ms. McDonald’s work. I read Off-Color and I didn’t like it. It didn’t work for me but I learned after reading the book that McDonald was a respected author so I think I need to step up and check out her other titles.

    Thanks for the post.

  4. [...] The Brown Bookshelf’s 28 Days Later today features on Day 20 Janet McDonald; unfortunately I was unaware of her, her work.  I loved reading on a publisher’s page Janet’s words outlining her life story briefly with the opening sentence “I was born after midnight during a thunderstorm.“  She went on later in that piece to say “Indeed, I bet somebody probably was kidding when he stuck me in that mess and was somewhere laughing his divine little head off. ‘Ha ha ha, here comes Janet. We’ll make her female in a man’s world, left-handed in a right-handed society, poor in a country that reveres wealth, bookwormish in the projects, and — what else? — black! Oh, she has to be black in America. Ha, ha, ha! Let’s see how she handles all that!’ ”                                     She handled it just fine, thank you…and she credits family members and books for that “just fine.”  I hope you will take the time to read more about Janet’s books and her life growing up in one of the worst slums in New York City and earning degrees in French literature from Vassar, in journalism from Columbia, and in law from NYU.  She spent most of her adult life in Paris where she unfortunately died of cancer at age 53 in 2007.  I personally am off to locate her memoir Project Girl as my first Janet book to read! [...]

  5. tanita says:

    I had only ever heard of Chill Wind; don’t ask me how I missed everything else. Thank you for this.

  6. Laureen says:

    I have all of her books. She is inspiring and influenced me to be a better person.

  7. This is an excellent post, and about something and someone that is really important to me. Thank-you.

    -Jane

  8. Dee says:

    Yes I do encourage everyone to go out and read this author’s books! She was such a great writer and I loved everything she wrote!

  9. breliza says:

    is there anywhere where i can find the books online?

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