New Voice: Nancy J. Cavanaugh on This Journal Belongs to Ratchet

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Nancy J. Cavanaugh is the first-time author of
This Journal Belongs to Ratchet (Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Eleven-year-old Ratchet determines to make a friend, save a park, and find her own definition of normal. She tells her story through the assignments in her homeschool language arts journal.

Living in a world of spark plugs, pistons, and crankshafts, Ratchet spends her days fixing cars with her dad in the garage – not exactly normal for a girl. 

Even with the odds stacked against her, Ratchet endeavors to change her life and realizes her skill as a mechanic might just be the path to her first friend. But in the process, she alienates her father and discovers a secret she wishes she never knew. 

She finds a way to, not only accept the truth she discovers, but also accept herself and her dad in a whole new way.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2013, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

My journey to publication was a long one. It began in 1994. Though that was an extremely long time for me to wait for my first book contract, looking back I can see how important those years were.

In those years, I had the good fortune of meeting so many wonderful writers, who not only shared their knowledge and expertise, but they also shared their friendship. My writing friends have become some of the most important people in my life. Sharing our struggles and successes as writers connects us in such a unique way, and as we embrace our writing ups and downs, we also share the ups and downs in our personal lives too.

So, though the journey to publication has been a long one for me, I am thankful for those many years filled with friendships that will last a lifetime.

The years I spent traveling my path to publication were also important because I have had the benefit of learning my craft well. As a former teacher, I love learning, and being a writer lends itself to continual learning. Joining the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, attending conferences and workshops, reading books about craft, working with writing coaches, and being a part of critique groups taught me how to be the writer I am today. I needed that education in writing in order to develop my talent as a writer into something that was marketable.

Over the years I have also had time to gain a good understanding of how the business of publishing works. That has helped me to have the confidence I need now to know how to best use my opportunity as a debut author.

So am I surprised that 2013 is my lucky debut year? If someone had told me that way back in 1994, yes, I would have been surprised. Am I surprised today? No. I am actually thankful for all those years for the reasons I have just explained.

My life motto has become, “slow and steady finishes the race.” That is how I kept the faith for so many years. I kept plodding along, not worrying about those who raced ahead of me, the ones whose path to publication was much shorter than mine. I kept adding to my knowledge and experience, always believing that one day it would be my turn.

So 2013 seems like exactly the right time, the perfect time actually, for me to be a debut author.

As a librarian-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a librarian has been a blessing to your writing?

One of the best pieces of writing advice I’ve been given over the years is, “If you want to be a writer, you have to read, read, read.”

Being a librarian means that, I can be doing my “job” and studying to be a better writer, at the same time. Reading good books, great books, and even some books I think aren’t so great, has helped me know what to do and what not to do as a writer. I learn best when someone shows me an example. Every time I read a book, it is an example of how a story’s plot works or how conflict gives a story more tension or how important setting is to the overall story.

 While I read, I make note of these things in my mind and try to apply them to my own writing.

So as I read and preview books for my library students, I learn to be a better writer; but I also learn something else. When I recommend books to students, I observe what books become the students’ most favorite. I see the variety of interests among young people and that helps me as a writer. It helps me know what kind of books and what type of subjects students want to read about.

Another part of my job as a librarian is to read aloud to my students. This helps me as a writer, too. Reading books aloud gives me yet another experience with “story.” I not only see and comprehend the story, but I say it and hear it too. It allows me to interact with a book on an even deeper level.

I also have the privilege of reading and hearing some of the same stories over and over again, year after year. To some that may sound boring, but to me, especially as a writer, it solidifies in my mind and imagination just what makes that story so great. It’s only after multiple readings of the same book that a reader really begins to appreciate the layers that make up that story.

In addition, I also have the opportunity to observe the students’ reaction and enjoyment to the stories I read. This helps me as a writer by giving me an idea of what I need to do in order to write something that will elicit that same kind of positive reaction.

Just as being a librarian enhances my life as a writer, being a writer also makes me a better librarian. I am able to share my experience as an author with my students, and this experience adds to their enthusiasm about reading and writing.

I also of course encourage them to discover things about the authors and illustrators behind the books they are reading, which enriches their reading experience as well.

For me each job is a blessing to the other, and both jobs are a blessing to me.

3 thoughts on “New Voice: Nancy J. Cavanaugh on This Journal Belongs to Ratchet

  1. Nancy, your story about patience and faith and waiting for your turn while you worked away on your own writing just got my morning off to a lovely start — what a lovely interview this is.

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