In person, author Janet McDonald brims
with the exuberance, humor and mischief that makes her lively,
urban novels so popular with critics and young adult readers
Meeting an interviewer for coffee in a DUMBO chocolate shop, the expatriate - she now resides in Paris - abruptly decides they both should pop in, unannounced, on her mother in the nearby Farragut Houses public housing project.
McDonald, 50, grew up there, in a building at 191 Sand St., one of seven children. She left the projects on the edge of Downtown Brooklyn and Vinegar Hill in 1973 to major in French at Vassar College, then earned a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia and a law degree at New York University.
"I had hoped to be a role model for my family," McDonald told GO Brooklyn. "But they had their own destinies." [Her youngest brother, Kevin was, however, inspired by her first book, the memoir "Project Girl," and recently published his own autobiography titled "Project Boy: Too Blessed to be Stressed."]
McDonald’s latest young adult novel, "Brother Hood" (Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux), to be published in September, is a departure from her previous three - a trilogy: "Spellbound" (2001), "Chill Wind" (2002) and "Twists and Turns" (2003) - because it is not set in Brooklyn, and the protagonist is not a girl. Yet all four books concern urban teens with obstacles to overcome.
The protagonist of "Brother Hood," Nathaniel Whitely, earns a scholarship to attend a posh boarding school, which gives the reader a chance to observe Nathaniel’s double life - surrounded by wealth and privilege at the school and danger and bleak prospects in his Harlem neighborhood.
"I had so much fun with this book ’Brother Hood,’ because Nathaniel is not trapped," McDonald said of the character, who becomes a role model for his friends on both sides of the tracks. "He’s bright. He’s not tormented or torn between two worlds and on Prozac. It’s not that way all the time. I can create a reality I want to be real. He’s well-adjusted and healthy psychologically and emotionally. He has old friends in the neighborhood, but he’s cool at school, too."
McDonald said that growing up in the Farragut Houses in the 1960s was different than it is for today’s youth, because "there had to be a working adult in the family - no one on public assistance." She said the houses had a barbershop, a movie theater and community centers before hitting hard times - an influx of drugs and a flatlining economy - in the 1970s.
"Now it seems calmer," she said, observing the quiet yards around the tall brick buildings and new benches installed in front of her old address. "There they are in all their glory. The houses that formed and deformed me. This neighborhood is so fat with memories and history for me."
While McDonald’s mother tells her that life at Sand and Gold streets, where she has lived for 50 years, has improved in recent years, the author confides, "My mother told me she carries a weapon." That is to say that mom Florence, now a great-grandmother, carries an 8-inch-long nail in her hand for protection when she goes to pick up her mail.
McDonald’s first book was the 2000 memoir "Project Girl," which detailed the considerable hurdles she had to overcome.
"My whole academic history has been about leaving and going back, so when I write about people facing challenges and overcoming odds, I’m not doing it from this pedestal where ’everything worked out great for me but I can imagine how it is when you screw up.’ I’m doing it from my life, because I know how it is."
Following "Project Girl," she garnered accolades for her young adult books - winning the 2003 Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe New Talent Award for "Chill Wind."
McDonald’s proud of the hopeful endings of her books, because she believes there is hope for young adults - even those living in the toughest environments - if they believe in themselves.
"I don’t want to write young adult preachy, pedantic novels," she complained when her agent Charlotte Sheedy suggested she write for the young adult audience. "I didn’t know they could be edgy and contemporary. I decided I’ll write my own style with cool teenagers that I would have liked to read.
"My first young adult book, ’Spellbound,’ is about taking on a challenge in life. To me the plot was this girl who wanted to go to college and was somehow derailed, and how was she going to achieve that goal?" said McDonald. "For French readers, they saw ’Brooklyn Babies’ [the French title of ’Spellbound’] as a controversial novel about teen pregnancy - a growing social problem. To me, teenage pregnancy was par for the course growing up here in Brooklyn."
McDonald believes that many problems for teens arise out of a lack of self-acceptance.
"Instead of ’I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?’ why not ’I’m a loser baby, but I’m still OK?,’" she said. "They need to be kinder to themselves. Not so self-critical and full of self-loathing."
She also encourages parents to take more responsibility for their teens’ happiness and academic success.
"Everyone needs to love their kids. Everyone says they do, but they don’t. They need to love them by giving them a sense of self-worth. Children need to feel safe, sound and loved."
Part of the appeal of McDonald’s books comes from characters who wear fashionable clothes and trade humorous raps.
"In a lot of ways, I’m still there," said the slim author, wearing a red "Property of MTV" jersey and blue jeans. "I listen to the same music as the characters in my books. I’m still ’Project Girl.’
"I’m still rowdy - I don’t have to fake it," she added.
McDonald credits her book’s realistic street dialogue and raps to her study of the French language.
"I have a linguistic ear, so it’s easy for me to pick up things I hear," she said. "I’m totally into MTV and [hip-hop star] Missy Elliott, who I always mention in my books."
McDonald feels her readers relate to her books because she so readily relates to her readers.
"I am them. It’s hard [for others] to accept - but I have a stunted development. I’m still into that music."
McDonald’s upbeat messages, combined with gritty, urban realism, have found a following among new young readers.
"I feel the real coup is if my books are being read by people who say they hate to read," said McDonald, who notes that those are occasionally the types of e-mails she gets from young, black fans all over the United States. "As long as they’re reading, that’s what’s important."
She recalled another success story from Brooklyn’s projects who found his way out with books.
"Read the dictionary!" she said, a bit tongue in cheek. "Jay-Z, from the Marcy projects, had to find words that rhymed - and meanings. He built his raps around words from reading the dictionary. Like Tiger Woods made golf safe for black people, Jay-Z made it cool for black people to read the dictionary!"
McDonald said reading novels helped her make informed choices in her own life.
"That was the key for me," she said. "Reading allows you to see how other people lived but also how other people are. Keep on discovering inner worlds of other people and discover that they are not all that different from your own.
"Not everyone can be in the NBA or on MTV. Some of you will need to go to college."
Her latest book references Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky’s landmark 1866 work, "Crime and Punishment."
"I don’t care if they’re dead white men," McDonald said with a laugh. "I stand by them. If someone doesn’t like them, they’re not hip!"
While the world of the murderous 19th-century Russian clerk may seem to be an unexpected visitor in the cosmopolitan author’s novels, she’s just as unpredictable in her own life. She suggests popping in for a visit with two unannounced guests, relishing the surprised reaction.
"I’m a drama queen," she said by way of explanation. "I’m a Leo."
But that’s not her only reason for returning to Brooklyn.
"I’m always scheming for one thing," she admits, "[My mother] Flo’s apple pie."
On Tuesday, McDonald’s niece Makeeba Page, who’s staying with Florence, threw open the door with a scream to welcome the author home. McDonald said the heroine of "Spellbound" was a composite of all her nieces.
"Raven won a spelling bee and went to college," said McDonald, who bristled that some critics accuse her books of having Hollywood endings. "I’m not going to read something depressing. Why would I want to write novels that are depressing, that reflect your depressing life?
"In my situation, it was true that if you believe it, there’s a better chance things will work out," she said. "It changes your energetic ball - it will attract more positive outcomes."
"Brother Hood" (Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16) by Janet McDonald is available at local bookstores. For ages 12 and older. For more information about McDonald’s books, visit www.projectgirl.com.