This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh
Posted by: Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan
Cindy: Rachel’s father has never called her by her real name, he calls her “Ratchet” after his favorite car repair tool saying her help is invaluable to him. Ratchet is home schooled, and because her mother is dead, she lives alone with her father who ekes out a living repairing cars out of their garage. This Journal Belongs to Ratchet (Sourcebooks 2013) is a collection of her home school language arts writing assignments requiring various forms. The assignments are taped to the top of the page and include everything from free verse poetry to problem/solution essays, to responses to quotations, book/media reviews and other common journal type assignments.
Ratchet is full of preteen longing. She badly wants a friend. She wants to learn about her mother so she can learn more about herself. And she wants something to happen in her dull life. How these desires are fulfilled is a story that young girls will eat up. Lots of white space on the journal pages make this a quick read and there is a lot to love about Ratchet and her story. She spends as much time in the garage helping her father change oil, replace brakes and other tasks. Their relationship changes throughout the book in an authentic way as Ratchet moves from the black and white world of childhood to the subtlety of gray in adolescence. He is a different person to her by the end, and she is changed too. The journey through her hunt for the locked box of her mother’s belongings is a metaphor for all of us in unlocking the mysteries of our parents, and of sorting through them and realizing that what is in the box is not as important as how we choose to deal with what we find. It’s a very complex idea that takes many of us decades to process but Cavanaugh presents the issue in a way that will be comprehensible to preteen readers.
Lynn: I admit to being just a tad dubious about this one since it looked a lot like all those “Wimpy Kid” look-alikes that are rolling out for the middle grade set. You’d think I’d know better by now but I put it down to the demands of reading for two committees. Anyway, whining aside, Cindy was right and after a few pages I was sucked right in.
Ratchet’s voice is absolutely endearing and her longings feel so authentic: to find a “style,” to know more about her mother who surely would have guided her through these growing up times, to have a friend and for her father to be less embarrassing! I remember still my awkward insecure attempts at fashion and that painful time when I desperately wanted to look “right.” Cavanaugh captures that perfectly and I ached for Ratchet as she did her best with a fashion magazine and Goodwill clothes only to discover that it was all wrong. There is a wonderful contrasting scene with the mother of friend who takes Ratchet shopping that reveals so much. One of the things I especially loved about this book is that Ratchet is a girl who wants to look nice, notices clothes and yet finally understands the importance of being comfortable with her own style AND with her rather unconventional skills.
And then there is Ratchet’s father. A talented mechanic who can fix anything, he is also a fierce environmentalist who has an on-going feud with the city council. He shows up at every meeting with his fuzzy too long hair wearing the same T-shirt that says,”Is it me or is this a festival of idiots?” Then he lectures the council about one environmental issue or another and the council treats him with scorn and dismissal. It is SO embarrassing! Ratchet wishes he could be like the other men there wearing a suit and never standing up to talk.
In time, as Cindy notes, Ratchet begins to see her father in a different way – a way that had me cheering.