In This Journal Belongs to Ratchet and Always, Abigail, Nancy J Cavanaugh combines her background as a primary teacher with her creative voice. Writing prompts and lists are basic components of modern language arts classes. Nancy artistically incorporates these foundations into her first two published books.
In This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, the book is designed to resemble the main character’s homeschool journal. Each chapter begins with a highlighted writing exercise that is followed by a handwritten response on lined paper. Adding to the authenticity of an actual writing journal, the pages include doodles and handmade designs. All of the chapters flow smoothly despite the obvious shift in format and content.
A similar technique is utilized in Always, Abigail. The main focus is on a series of lists that gracefully glide into one another without any pauses or interruptions. By using this organizational strategy, Nancy is supporting modern K-6 teaching methods and simultaneously providing a new genre for reluctant readers. Short and concise chapters are definitely more appealing to someone who would prefer not to read.
As I started reading This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, I wondered whether Nancy could fully develop her characters and create engaging plots and subplots that would maintain her readers’ interest. It didn’t take long before I realized Nancy’s outstanding ability to write thought provoking and engaging chapter books using unconventional formats.
Early on readers commiserate with Ratchet’s insecurities when she responds to a prompt that focuses on writing a summary of things that occurred during a brief period of time.
“I feel everyone staring at me. And at that moment I wish I could be like Dad- not caring what anyone thinks. Not being afraid of what people say about me. Not worrying if I look like a fool in the Goodwill outfit I worked so hard to put together. But I do care. I came to this class because I care, and because I had hoped to make a friend, but I could tell that wasn’t going to happen, so I just shrug and say, ‘I’m in the wrong room.’” (Page 40)
Many readers will also connect with Ratchet’s desire to “fit in” with her peers and feel compassion for her unusual family situation. Ratchet’s widowed dad is an unconventional character who does not always conform to the rules of the community. When her dad is forced to do community service, Ratchet cringes. But her witty and oftentimes humorous thoughts allow readers to fully appreciate the depth of her character.
In response to a poem prompt, Ratchet writes:
The only thing worse
Than my life before,
Is my life now.
Garbage smells worse
Than oil and grease
Orange vests look worse
Than mechanics clothes.
And a community service criminal
Is even more worse to tease
Than a crazy mechanic. (Blog wouldn’t conform to formatting on page 85)
With tact and grace, Ratchet learns to overcome the negative perceptions of her peers and community while still respecting her father’s quirky hippie behavior. Simultaneously, her efforts to find information about her mother’s past are continually sabotaged by her father. The lingering secret surrounding her mother’s past is just one of many threads that illustrate Hatchet’s desire to lead a “normal” existence.
After just a few pages, I was eager to learn how Ratchet would overcome her personal challenges and mature. It’s a quick and worthwhile journey to find out the lessons that Ratchet learned in Nancy’s debut novel.
Nancy Cavanaugh does not waste any time informing readers about her intentions in Always, Abigail. The first words are “The coolest thing about sixth grade. The pom-pom squad!!!!!” If readers are not interested in the pom-pom squad, they might opt to stop there. That would indeed be a mistake since the story has more depth and substance than tryouts for a pom-pom squad.
Many middle school girls share Abigail’s initial feeling that being part of a particular group is the most important thing in the world. “Everyone who’s anyone is a pom-pom girl.” (2) Within a few more pages of Abigail’s famous lists, many of the harsh realities of middle school life are revealed.
To summarize the key components of Always Abigail, I have created my own list of 10 threads that Nancy skillfully weaves throughout Always, Abigail.
- Middle school kids have an overwhelming desire to be part of the “right” crowd.
- Being part of the “in” group may not live up to its expectations.
- Fears of becoming labeled a “loser” can be crippling.
- Kids that are picked on or teased need support and understanding.
- Friendships and popularity can be tenuous.
- Embarrassing situations are easily blown out of proportion
- Lying is a convenient way to avoid an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation.
- Out of character behavior is a warning sign.
- Doing “the right thing” is a sign of maturity.
- It’s necessary to periodically find time to self-reflect.
Through Abigail’s assortment of lists, readers will come face-to-face with typical sixth grade dilemmas and the exaggerated personal drama that often accompanies such middle school issues. However, the beauty of this chapter book lies in Abigail’s struggles to find her comfort zone. As her character develops, Abigail must face character-building decisions. The ups and downs of her journey showcase a spunky teenage girl who is learning the consequences of her decisions.
Near the end of the book she states, “The only problem was that there was nothing fun about the crazy mirror I was looking into right now. When I saw what I really looked like, there was nothing to laugh about.” (280)
If you are curious as to whether Abigail’s desire to be popular will override her need to act appropriately, put Always, Abigail on your reading list.
Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon. Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons. The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.