McDonald, Joyce 1946–
McDonald, Joyce 1946–
PERSONAL: Born August 4, 1946, in San Francisco, CA; daughter of Eugene William (a police lieutenant) and Mayme (a homemaker; maiden name, Beilstein) Schanbacher; married Hubert (Mac) McDonald (a hardware engineer). Education: University of Iowa, B.A., 1972, M.A., 1974; Drew University, Ph.D., 1994.
ADDRESSES: Home—Northampton County, PA. Agent—Tracey Adams, Adams Literary, 7845 Colony Rd., C-4, No. 215, Charlotte, NC 28226. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Charles Scribners Sons, New York, NY, production assistant, 1976–78; Springer-Verlag, New York, NY, production editor, 1978–80; freelance editor/copyeditor, 1980–84; McDonald Publishing Company, Inc./Shoe Tree Press, NJ, publisher and editor, 1984–89; Betterway Publications, Inc., editor, 1989–90; Drew University, Madison, NJ, adjunct lecturer, 1989–2000; East Stroudsburg University, East Stroudsburg, PA, assistant professor of English, 1990–96; Spalding University, Louisville, KN, instructor in writing program, 2004.
MEMBER: Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Authors Guild, Rutgers University Council on Children's Literature.
AWARDS, HONORS: Children's Choice Book designation, International Reading Association/Children's Book Council, 1989, for Mail-Order Kid; Children's Book of the Year honors, Child Study Children's Book Committee, 1997, for Comfort Creek; "Books in the Middle" Outstanding Titles of 1997, Voice of Youth Advocates, and Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults and 100 Best Books for Teens, 1996–2006, listee, both American Library Association (ALA), and Best Children's Books of the Year citation, Children's Book Committee, ALA/YALSA Popular Paperback for Young Adults selection, 2003, One-Book New Jersey (state-wide read) Young-adult selection, 2006, and ranked among Best of the Best for the Twenty-first Century, 1994–2003, all for Swallowing Stones; Books for the Teen Age citation, New York Public Library, for Shadow People; ALA Best Book for Young Adults citation, 2001, Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination, 2002, and Books for the Teen Age citation, all for Shades of Simon Gray; Bank Street College Best Children's Book of the Year selection, and Books for the Teen Age citation, both 2004, both for Devil on My Heels.
FOR CHILDREN AND YOUNG ADULTS
Mail-Order Kid, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1988.
Homebody (picture book), illustrated by Karl Swanson, G.P. Putnam's Sons (New York, NY), 1991.
Comfort Creek, Delacorte (New York, NY), 1996.
Swallowing Stones (young-adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 1997.
Shades of Simon Gray (young-adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 2001.
Shadow People (young-adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 2002.
Devil on My Heels (young-adult novel), Delacorte (New York, NY), 2004.
The Stuff of Our Forebears: Willa Cather's Southern Heritage (literary criticism), University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 1998.
Contributor of articles to scholarly journals. Contributor of short fiction to anthology Don't Cramp My Style, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: After several years working for a publishing house in Manhattan and starting her own small publishing house, Joyce McDonald switched gears and began a career as a college-level English teacher. Fortunately for readers, she has also continued as a children's book author. With middle-grade and young-adult novels such as Mail-Order Kid, Swallowing Stones, and Devil on My Heels to her credit, she has also authored the picture book Homebody, and has published academic articles as well as a book of literary criticism of American author Willa Cather.
"I have always had a passion for books," McDonald once commented: "I grew up in a house where books lined shelves in almost every room," she noted of her childhood in New Jersey. "Each night my mother would read to me before I went to bed…. To this day, I still read for a few hours every night, curled up under my cozy covers, with a cup of herbal tea nearby. Needless to say, most of my professional life has been devoted to books through one means or another."
McDonald proved herself an inventive storyteller early on. "My first book was far from an elaborate production: eight pages of tediously hand-printed words and smudged crayon illustrations tenuously held together by a small safety pin. (We didn't own a stapler.) I was six years old." Unfortunately, her teachers were more interested in her penmanship ("my worst subject," McDonald admitted) than in her creativity with words. Nonetheless, she continued to write and illustrate original stories throughout elementary school. "I rarely shared these early endeavors with anyone, except my mother or grandmother. I remember the first time I experienced the delicious feeling of encountering a receptive audience. When I was seven, my mother took one of my stories and typed it into legible form … then passed it along to a friend of hers who was an elementary school teacher. What is particularly memorable for me is the image I hold of my mother sitting at the kitchen table hunting out the keys of my father's old portable Smith Corona typewriter. She didn't know how to type, so it must have taken her hours. Yet it may well have been one of the most important things she ever did for me, because her message was loud and clear. She liked what I had written."
"There was no stopping me after that," McDonald remembered. "If I wasn't writing stories, I was telling them. The recipients of these early attempts at developing plot and character were neighborhood friends who sat around looking tolerant while I poured out monster and ghost stories filled with blood and gore. Yes, blood and gore. After all, these kids were a tough audience. I did what I had to do to hold their interest. It was one of my first lessons in storytelling. No matter how well crafted, how deeply philosophical, how delightfully metaphorical a story might be, if it didn't entertain, it was a flop."
By age ten McDonald had decided to tackle her first novel. "It was the middle of winter and every day I'd run home from school, head for the desk in my bedroom, and work on my book, appropriately titled Very Cold Days, about a large, boisterous family. By age eleven, I had taught myself how to type … and the stories and plays kept coming, although not quite as frequently during my high school years. I was much more interested in spending time with my friends."
In high school, McDonald was fortunate to have an English teacher, Miss Miles, who encouraged her students to do creative writing. "One of my best memories is of Miss Miles reading my story out loud to the class. She had selected my story and one other. And for the second time in my life, I felt the validation of an audience. My peers and my teacher 'liked' my work."
Despite her interest in writing, McDonald enrolled in college with the intent of majoring in art. "It never occurred to me that writing was something people did for a living," she later explained. "Writing was simply a way of life, something very much linked to my survival, like eating or breathing. It wasn't until I later majored in English at the University of Iowa and had the opportunity to take fiction courses with such talented writers as Stuart Dybek, that I began to think of writing as a possible career."
After graduating with a master's degree in English, McDonald moved to New York City, hoping to work for a major publishing house. "One of my dreams had been to work in the publishing industry. So despite warnings from several well-meaning friends who told me it was virtually impossible to 'break in' to the industry unless you knew someone (which I didn't), I continued to 'pound the pavement' for several weeks, leaving my resume with receptionists at all the publishing houses I wanted to work for." Her perseverance paid off; McDonald was eventually offered an entry-level position at Charles Scribner's Sons.
"Scribners was still a family-owned business in those days. The first time I walked into the editorial offices, all my romanticized images of the publishing world came with me. This was the same building Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had entered. The same offices where they met with their famous editor, Max Perkins. I was in heaven."
During her years in publishing, McDonald continued to write adult novels and short stories, although nothing was ever published. "As discouraging and painful as it was to receive rejection letters, I kept at it. Looking back, I realize now that these were my apprentice years. And all writers must endure them if they are to learn and grow."
McDonald drew on the experience she gained in publishing years later, when she channeled her fascination with children's literature into a small publishing company she founded that specialized in children's books. "I not only began to publish the works of New Jersey children's authors, but also tried my hand at writing books for children," she noted. With help from a professional writers' group, her writing acquired the polish it needed, and in 1988 her first book, Mail-Order Kid, was published.
Mail-Order Kid is the story of Flip Doty, a fifth grader who is not pleased when his parents decide to adopt a six-year-old Korean boy and add him to their formerly single-child home. Brother Todd is an embarrassment to Flip, eating fireflies and taking off his clothes in the middle of Woolworth's. If his parents can acquire a child through the mail, Flip does not see any reason why he cannot get a red fox the same way. However, when she arrives, pet fox Vickie wreaks havoc throughout the Doty house. Realizing that he may lose his beloved pet, Flip begins to see parallels between the fox and his new brother, as each attempts to adapt to a strange new situation.
Mail-Order Kid was praised by School Library Journal contributor Nancy P. Reeder as "a well-written story with a pertinent message," while in Booklist, Phillis Wilson noted that McDonald "balances humorous escapades with touching moments" of acceptance by Flip for both his brother and the fox that must be returned to the wild.
McDonald's first picture book, Homebody, "takes place in a rural setting, much like the area my husband and I live in, an area not far from the Delaware Water Gap which is rich in beauty and teeming with wildlife," McDonald once explained. "I love animals, especially cats (we have several), so it seemed natural that my next book would be about a cat (the 'Homebody' of the story) and a dog. The animals are abandoned by their owners who leave their rundown, rented house in the middle of the night to avoid paying the rent. The new owner plans to repair the house and then sell it. He eventually takes the dog home with him, but has no idea that there is a cat hiding on the property. The gray cat is not about to reveal her presence, or to leave, 'Because home was home, and that was that.' The story is actually a fictionalized account of a similar quiet drama which I watched unfold over several months not far from my home." Illustrated by Karl Swanson, Homebody was cited as a story of "abandonment and compassion" by School Library Journal contributor Virginia Opocensky, who praised the book as "a good choice for reading aloud and discussing the story's message of concern."
In tandem with beginning her writing career, McDonald began a new career as a college professor by embarking on a Ph.D. program at Drew University. Time constraints forced her to sell her publishing business, "yet somewhere between course work, compre-hensive exams, writing my dissertation, and teaching, I did squeeze in time to write another children's book." Comfort Creek, a children's novel about the Ellerbee family's fall onto hard times, was published in 1996. "Many of the background details in the novel are based on stories that my husband, who was born and raised in Florida, had shared with me over the years," McDonald explained.
In Comfort Creek Mr. Ellerbee loses his job when the mining company he works for goes bankrupt. Not long after, his wife abandons the family to pursue her dream of becoming a country-and-western singer. One of the three Ellerbee children, sixth-grader Quinnella Ellerbee, is understandably disgruntled by the disruption other people—namely her parents—have caused in her life, and she must now learn to cope with change and realize that even adults do not have total control over the way things turn out. Michael Cart praised the novel, noting in Booklist that the "unusual setting and the realistic handling of economic and environmental issues … strengthen this engaging story." Citing narrator Quinn as "a spunky character with a uniquely honest voice that readers are sure to like," Jacqueline Rose wrote in Voice of Youth Advocates that readers of Comfort Creek "will be moved" by the novel's conclusion.
During the 1990s McDonald pursued her career as an educator, working as an adjunct lecturer and assistant professor at two different colleges. She also managed to find time for her writing, and in 1997 published the young-adult novel Swallowing Stones. Told through the alternating viewpoints of seventeen-year-old Michael MacKenzie and fifteen-year-old Jenna Ward, the novel explores the repercussions of a single, presumably harmless, act on a web of interconnected lives. Michael's attempts to hide the evidence of the gun shot that has inadvertently killed Jenna's father result in an increasingly tangled net of lies. Noting that the book was inspired by an accidental shooting that took place in her town, McDonald explained that the incident "continued to haunt me. And, as with all my books, the story began with hearing the character's voice in my mind."
Dubbing Swallowing Stones a "mesmerizing story," Joel Shoemaker noted in the School Library Journal that the novel "derives its power from the respect McDonald demonstrates" for her teen characters and predicted that the story will have readers "turning the page to find out what happens next." "McDonald has crafted a gem," Brooke Selby Dillon wrote in Book Report, citing the novel for its "believable and empathetic characters; fascinating minor characters, who defy stereotypes; poetic, haunting, yet easily accessible language; a touch of mysticism; and a finely threaded theme."
"With the publication of Swallowing Stones, I finally came to accept that my writing is as important to me now as it was in my formative years, perhaps even more so," McDonald later explained noting that she cut back on her academic duties in order to make writing a full-time endeavor. "With each new book, I find myself testing new themes and challenging myself with more complex characters and plots," she added.
McDonald has continued to focus on an older teen audience in her more recent fiction. In her 2000 novel, Shadow People, teens Gabriel, Lydia, Alec, and Hollis meet by chance—or perhaps fate—at a deserted campground. Each feeling anger, frustration, and loneliness, they form a gang, the Lords of Destruction, and when assembled as a group under the cover of darkness, they become emboldened and engage in acts of escalating violence. Eventually they blow up a building, inadvertently killing a homeless person in the act. When Gabriel crosses paths with classmate Gem, she falls in love with him and soon faces a crossroads: Will she provide Gabriel a way out of the cycle of violence or be drawn into it herself?
Barbara Jo McKee, writing in the School Library Journal, praised Shadow People, calling it a "chilling story" featuring "well drawn" protagonists and a "surprise ending." Writing in Booklist, Debbie Carton noted that McDonald's novel is "unrelenting in its dark vision," the author's "dark, brooding story line build[ing] … to a horrifying climax, with the sickening knowledge that the guilty will go unpunished." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly wrote that Shadow People's "chilling premise and credible depiction of the gang dynamic—propelled by fear—will keep the pages turning."
In Shades of Simon Gray McDonald puts a "supernatural spin"on this "tale of teenage malfeasance," according to Booklist contributor John Peters. Simon Gray, a seemingly model teen, crashes his car into the Liberty Tree in the center of his small New Jersey town and now lies in a coma. Questions quickly arise: Was this an accident or attempted suicide? While Simon's comatose body remains in his hospital bed, his spirit returns to the site of his accident. Here readers learn that the Liberty Tree was once also known as the Hanging Tree; in his supernatural travel Simon meets up with the ghost of Jessup Wildemere, an innocent man who, condemned for murder, was hanged from that tree in 1798. Meanwhile, the investigation surrounding Simon's death has uncovered his involvement in a computer-hacking scheme that allows advance access to tests. As he witnesses Jessup grapple with the injustice of his tragic end, Simon emerges from his comatose state, realizing that there are more effective ways to deal with guilt.
Weaving together "elements of ghost story, thriller, and (unrequited) romance," McDonald creates a "spooky tale from a guilty conscience," wrote Lauren Adams in a Horn Book review of Shades of Simon Gray. Vicki Reutter, writing in the School Library Journal, deemed the author's "juggling of numerous plot elements is interesting and will appeal to mystery fans,"" despite her opinion that the novel's supernatural elements appear "imposed and unnecessary." A critic for Kirkus Reviews held a different view, citing McDonald for both writing and for plotting. "Written with considerable narrative skill," the critic wrote, "the supernatural elements are so cleverly integrated that the ending is both satisfying and convincing." As a Publishers Weekly critic observed, Simon "is a thoughtful, interesting character," and McDonald "paints an eerie, electric atmosphere of menace that lingers past the final page."
Moving from the supernatural to social history, McDonald opens what Booklist contributor Jennifer Mattson described as "a Pandora's box of racism and exploitation" in her novel Devil on My Heels. Set in rural Florida during the early 1960s, the novel focuses on Dove Alderman, a fifteen year old whose father own an orange grove worked by Mexican and black migrant agricultural laborers. Tensions between whites and non-whites rise as protesting laborers clash with local Ku Klux Klan members. When the husband of Dove's African-American housekeeper is struck by a car and killed, the teen determines to discover the truth about the so-called accident, despite the fact that her actions alienate her from friends, and even family.
Praising McDonald for her "gripping historical storytelling," a Kirkus Reviews contributor praised the "well-developed characters" in Devil on My Heels, adding as a caveat to squeamish readers that scenes within the novel "are equally vivid and sometimes violently graphic." Mattson had special praise for the book's protagonist, Dove, whose "refusal to sit idly by" in the wake of injustice "will endear her to readers." A Publishers Weekly contributor dubbed the novel "engrossing" and suspenseful, while in the School Library Journal, Bruce Anne Shook praised the period detail and concluded that Devil on My Heels is "a page turner" that will provide readers "insight into a difficult and shameful part of American history."
While describing her path as an author as "a series of sometimes unexpected digressions," McDonald nonetheless views the "rambling route" she has traveled as one that "has somehow taken me to the places I needed to be to become the writer I am today." "I suspect many of my colleagues in the academic profession wonder why I spend time writing children's fiction when I could be pursuing more scholarly work," she added, concluding: "I can't imagine a more satisfying or rewarding way to spend my days."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, June 1, 1988, Phillis Wilson, review of Mail-Order Kid, p. 1676; November 15, 1996, Michael Cart, review of Comfort Creek, p. 588; October 15, 1997, p. 397; February 15, 1999, Karen Harris, review of Swallowing Stones, p. 1084; November 15, 2000, Debbie Carton, review of Shadow People, p. 634; January 1, 2001, review of Swallowing Stones, p. 978; January 1, 2002, John Peters, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 842; May 15, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 1628.
Book Report, November, 1997, Brooke Selby Dillon, review of Swallowing Stones.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, June, 1988, pp. 211-212; February, 1997, pp. 213-214; December, 2001, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 148; September, 2004, Karen Coats, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 28.
Horn Book, January-February, 1997, p. 62; January-February, 2002, Lauren Adams, review of Shades of Simon Gray, pp. 80-81.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2001, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 1362; April 15, 2004, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 397.
Kliatt, May, 2003, Deborah Kaplan, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, November 25, 1996, review of Comfort Creek, pp. 75-76; September 22, 1997, review of Swallowing Stones, p. 82; August 23, 1999, p. 61; December 11, 2000, review of Shadow People, p. 85; October 1, 2001, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 62; June 14, 2004, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 64.
School Library Journal, May, 1988, Nancy P. Reeder, review of Mail-Order Kid, p. 98; January, 1992, Virginia Opocensky, review of Homebody, p. 93; September, 1997, Joel Shoemaker, review of Swallowing Stones, p. 71; January, 2000, review of Swallowing Stones, p. 43; November, 2000, Barbara Jo McKee, review of Shadow People, p. 148; November, 2001, Vicki Reutter, review of Shades of Simon Gray, pp. 161-162.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 22, 1991, p. 5; August 17, 2003, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 4; July, 2004, Bruce Anne Shook, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 108.
Voice of Youth Advocates, October, 1996, Jacqueline Rose, review of Comfort Creek, p. 212; December, 1997; October, 2000, review of Shadow People, p. 268; December, 2001, review of Shades of Simon Gray, p. 372; August, 2004, review of Devil on My Heels, p. 222.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (September 17, 2005), James Neal Webb, review of Shades of Simon Gray.
Joyce McDonald Web site, http://www.joycemcdonald.com (October 20, 2005).