This morning, I finished reading yet another of the nominated titles for this year’s South Carolina Children’s Book Award. The book was This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh. As the title suggests, this book is written in a journal format, and each entry tells readers a little more about our main character, Ratchet. (Her real name is Rachel, but no one calls her that.)
If you’ve worked with elementary or middle grade readers, I likely don’t have to tell you how popular books in diary/journal format are. I can’t keep books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Dear Dumb Diary, or even Dear America books on the shelves. These books are quick, entertaining reads that kids tend to devour. I predict that This Journal Belongs to Ratchet will be no different.
Ratchet is looking for her life to change. This lonely girl–who is homeschooled by her father–wants to make friends, be more like other girls, and finally have something new in her life. Ratchet is sure that having a mother would make everything different, but there’s not much she can do about that. (Her mother died when Ratchet was just a little girl.) Even so, Ratchet works to make things change…hopefully for the better.
Ratchet explores her feelings through a journal. Now, this journal is supposed to be for a homeschool language arts assignment, but Ratchet knows her dad will never read it, so she pours all of her feelings onto the pristine white pages. She uses her writing assignments–poetry, freewriting, descriptive essays, letters, and many others–to describe her frustrations with her father. His obsession with saving the environment and looking insane at every town hall meeting, his insistence on homeschooling Ratchet, never buying anything new, always needing her help in the garage, and his refusal to talk about her mom.
It’s not easy being the daughter of the town joke, and Ratchet hates feeling embarrassed all the time. (Her dad may not care what others think of him, but Ratchet does.) She loves her dad, but she longs for more in her life. Things would be so much better if she just had one real friend, but the kids in the neighborhood always make fun of Ratchet because of her dad…and because both of them are always covered in grease from working on cars.
Things may be on the verge of changing for Ratchet, though. When her dad begins teaching a class at the community center on how to build go-carts, Ratchet begins using the lessons her father taught her to get closer to the boys in the class. They really seem to value her knowledge, and Ratchet feels good about helping them. In the process, she even makes a close friend, Hunter, a boy who used to be part of the crowd that teased her so much.
As Ratchet explores her life, her relationship with her dad, and her feelings about her new friendship, she gradually realizes that maybe it’s not so important to be “normal.” Maybe her dad has been teaching her the important things in life all along. Sure, he’s a little crazy sometimes–and he often makes her mad–but he fights for the things he believes in, he’s true to himself, and, most importantly, he’s always been there for Ratchet. Perhaps her dad isn’t so crazy after all.
Maybe what Ratchet really needs to change in her life is her own perspective. When she realizes just how lucky she actually is, she can do anything she sets her mind to.
I often tell my students that normal is boring. Well, Ratchet is anything but boring. I don’t know of many kids who can rebuild an engine, change a tire, teach others to build their own go-carts, and be motivated enough to do school work without any help. Ratchet is a fascinating character, and I think many readers will find her journey of self-discovery inspiring and enlightening. I also believe that readers who see themselves as kind of different will see a kindred spirit in Ratchet. And who knows? Her story could even inspire young readers–particularly girls–to learn more about auto mechanics.
I think This Journal Belongs to Ratchet could be a very powerful teaching tool in elementary and middle grade language arts classes. I envision classes reading this book together and then writing in their own journals. Students could take Ratchet’s example, and write their own poems, essays, letters, and even modern-day fairy tales, using their own lives as inspiration.
All in all, I’m very happy that this book was chosen as a 14-15 SCCBA nominee. It’s an entertaining, thought-provoking book that could help readers explore their own difficulties, frustrations, and even victories through writing. I hope the students and teachers in my school feel the same.