Picture a blue cloth-covered journal, filled with typical lined notebook paper and a handful of Polaroid photographs stuck inside. The journal looks old and worn, some of the pages appear to be creased and wrinkled, and the photos are yellowed and watermarked at their edges. This is The Unforgotten Coat - a clever, creative new book by Frank Cottrell Boyce with a funny and heartwarming story bursting from inside its covers.
And the story? It is memorable. Julie, who narrates as an adult looking back, says so right from the start. She says of a photograph on the first page: "I hadn't seen this... since the day it was taken, until now. Even so, I can tell you anything you want to know about it." And then Julie proceeds to explain the photo and, of course, so much more. Chingis, a boy from Mongolia, took the photograph. He and his little brother, Nergui, had come to Bootle, a suburb of Liverpool where Julie lived. They had just arrived, in fact, to attend their first day of school. Within the first minute of being in the Year Six classroom, the two boys had given the teacher a run for her money. They were opinionated, they were passionate, and they were mysterious. Julie was mesmerized. "...[I]n that moment I felt my own ignorance spread suddenly out behind me like a pair of wings, and every single thing I didn't know was a feather on those wings. I could feel them tugging at the air, restless to be airborne."
Chingis and Nergui set Julie's ignorance free. But it is not so much that they teach her about Mongolia or immigration or even the fear of being unwanted in two countries at once. They could teach her these things; they do experience them, after all. Instead, through their silence and the mystery that surrounds them - Why are the boys in Bootle? Why does Nergui think a demon is chasing him? Where do the boys exactly live anyway? - they entice Julie to teach herself about all of these things.
By making this choice, Frank Cottrell Boyce creates something far more interesting and magical - and ultimately real - with The Unforgotten Coat. Julie is an active and vital participant in discovering who Chingis and Nergui really are, and thus the reader is too. Frank Cottrell Boyce doesn't exaggerate any part of this story - the boys are not overly sentimentalized; their connection with Julie is not too thickly drawn; their mystery is not melodramatic. The story is sparse in words but not sparse in feeling and meaning. Carefully crafted holes that Frank Cottrell Boyce leaves in the text are perfectly filled by both the photographs that Carl Hunter and Clare Heney create and by the reader putting all of the pieces together.
Interesting to note - this story was inspired by the first school visit Frank Cottrell Boyce ever did. A Mongolian girl was in the class, and she made a lasting impression on him, partly because she had such a strong and positive presence and partly because her classmates clearly adored her.
The Unforgotten Coat is a quick and powerful read. Young middle graders can easily read it, but it is suitable for upper middle graders, young adults, and adults too.
Frank Cottrell Boyce has written several children's books, including Millions, winner of the Carnegie Medal, and Cosmic - both of which have been turned into films. He lives in England with his family.
Carl Hunter and Clare Heney, the illustrators of The Unforgotten Coat, are both filmmakers who have partnered on a number of short films, including an adaptation of Frank Cottrell Boyce's short story "Accelerate." They live in England.
This review is from the November 3, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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