by Melissa Fales
In 2016, an unforgettable 17-year-old singer took NBC’s The Voice by storm, unleashing her powerful sound and sharing her poignant journey from childhood bullying victim to rising star and anti-bullying advocate. In an effort to bring her inspiring story to more young people, Wé McDonald has recently released a children’s book. In The Little Girl with the Big Voice, McDonald writes about enduring and ultimately overcoming the vicious taunting she suffered. “My book touches on bullying, but it ends with me on stage, being triumphant and realizing that I don’t have to change who I am for people to like me,” says McDonald. “I think that’s a very important message for kids today. It’s something more kids need to hear.”
Growing up in Harlem surrounded by her family of talented musicians, McDonald thought being able to sing was a universal trait. She didn’t realize she had a special gift until she was 12 years old. “I liked to sing, but I didn’t know I was good at it,” she says. “I thought everyone could sing until I found out that being tone deaf was a thing.”
McDonald’s naturally high-pitched speaking voice, a stark contrast from the deep singing voice her fans enjoy, combined with her need to wear thick eyeglasses, made her a target for bullies in her school. At home, she sought comfort from her family and especially from music. “I’d turn on the radio and write in my Barbie diary,” says McDonald. “Listening to music always made me feel better.”
Being bullied drove McDonald to want to sing even more. “Singing was the best way I knew how to express myself,” she says. “I thought I couldn’t be the only person feeling like this.” And since music had always soothed her when she was feeling down, McDonald decided to pursue a career in music where she could use its ability to heal to help others. “I wanted to give that same comfort to others,” she says. “I wanted to give reassurance to anyone who was struggling that things were going to be alright.”
When McDonald was in eighth grade, she started taking vocal lessons through an afterschool program at Harlem School of the Arts. “At first I was horrified,” says McDonald. “I figured it would be a new place and new people to make fun of me. But it ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me.” As she grew, so did her voice, her polish, and her professionalism. She went on to perform at major venues including the renowned Apollo Theater, Lincoln Center, and Carnegie Hall. She is currently studying jazz vocals at William Patterson University.
McDonald will be releasing an EP soon. The lyrics to her recently-released new single, “Head Up High,” are featured on the back of The Little Girl with the Big Voice. She says she enjoyed her turn at being an author, but she plans to release more music before she writes another book. “I don’t approach singing and writing in the same way, but I do approach both of those things with the same heart and passion,” she says.
Viewers of The Voice witnessed that heart and passion throughout McDonald’s appearance on the show. It all started when her father surprised her with a ticket to the Philadelphia auditions. There, McDonald and her father were hauled into a huge center with a few thousand other people. “It was really early in the morning, too, but the mood was electric,” she recalls. One of the most memorable points in the process was waiting to hear if McDonald made it to the blind audition round. “We were in our hotel room and we got a call that they were having a meeting and they wanted us there,” she says, adding that she went into a full-blown instant panic. “I thought that we were late for something, that we didn’t look at the schedule correctly, or that we had messed up,” says McDonald. When she arrived at the meeting, there were only a few other contestants there. When the announcement came that they’d made it to the blind auditions, McDonald was floored. “It was so surreal,” she says. “It was an unbelievable feeling.”
During her blind audition, McDonald belted out a rendition of “Feeling Good” that compelled all four judges to turn their chairs around, indicating an interest in having her on their team. Honestly, I only remember some of it,” McDonald says. “It was so overwhelming.” Miley Cyrus, Alicia Keys, and Blake Shelton had all turned around when McDonald closed her eyes briefly during the tune. “When I opened my eyes, Adam (Levine) had turned around,” says McDonald. “I couldn’t help it. I freaked out a little. I had a moment.”
McDonald, who ultimately placed third overall, chose to work with Keys as her mentor, but says she gleaned valuable advice from all four of the show’s star coaches. “When you have musicians like this sharing what they’ve learned throughout their experience in life with you and helping you, it’s priceless,” says McDonald. “With my book, I feel like it’s my turn to share what I’ve learned from my experiences. I hope I can help others who were in my situation.”
In The Little Girl with the Big Voice, McDonald offers a very personal look into her own transformation. “This book is really about my journey,” she says. “It shows how I used to try to change who I was just to make people like me, but it ends with happiness. When kids read it, I want them to take away that confidence is beautiful in people no matter what they look like. You can have a small beginning, but if you work hard, you can end up on top. You have the right to fight for that.” •
Read more stories like this in the June issue of Story Monsters Ink! The literary resource for teachers, librarians, and parents.