Contemporary Mongolia doesn’t have all that many English language children’s novels to its name. And if you asked me to name everything I knew about Mongolia today, I’d probably find myself referring to key scenes in that recent documentary Babies more than anything else. I don’t think I would have selected author Frank Cottrell Boyce to shed any light on the country or its inhabitants. Heck, I’ll take it one step further. With books like Millions and Cosmic under his belt I wouldn’t have even thought he’d want to write a book about immigration, cultural identity, fitting in, and having your assumptions wrecked. Shows what I know because write such a book he has and the result is a svelte little novel that may be his best. The Unforgotten Coat is the kind of book you get when an author gets an original idea and works it into something memorable. This is one story kids will read and then find difficult to forget.
Julie first sees the boys on the playground during break. When the class returns inside the boys follow and suddenly there they are. Chingis and Nergui, two brothers from Mongolia. Almost immediately Chingis identifies Julie as their “Good Guide” who will show them around and tell them everything they need to know. Julie embraces her role with gusto, but as she helps the boys out she wants to know more and more about them. Where do they live? Why do they insist that Nergui is being tracked by a demon that will make him “vanish”. What’s their real story? The trouble is, the moment Julie realizes what’s going on it is far too late.
The book is great. No question. But it’s the Afterword that deserves just as much attention. In it the reader learns where Boyce got the inspiration for this story. Turns out, during the very first school visit Mr. Boyce ever did, he sat with a group of kids that included a Mongolian girl by the name of Misheel. Then one day the Immigration Authorities took her away in the night and Boyce was left with the image of Misheel’s abandoned coat. He wanted to make a documentary with the kids of going to Mongolia to return the coat but that fell through. So it was he wrote this story instead with new characters and, at its core, an abandoned coat. Again.
The best works of protest are those that don’t harangue you but softly win you over to their point of view. Boyce is not a fan of some of the actions taken by the U.K.’s immigration authorities, that’s for sure. In his Afterword he even goes so far as to say, “I do know that a country that authorizes its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.” And he could have made the characters of Chingis and Nergui adorable moppets who win your heart with a smile and a wink. He doesn’t. Chingis is demanding and Nergui isn’t far off. You do grow attached to them, but not because they’re cute or anything. If you like them it’s because you got to know them a little better, just as Julie has. So when they’re taken away you feel the shock of watching someone you know vanish. And it feels wrong.
The character of Julie is fabulous, partly because I’ve never quite encountered her situation in a book for kids before. We don’t get much of a sense of Julie’s home life in this story. What we do know is that when she runs into Chingis and Nergui she is adopted by them and settles into her role as “Good Guide” with an overabundance of gusto. I think as kids we all knew that girl that would throw herself into a project without much in the way of forethought. Her obsession with Mongolia (and the boys’ relative disassociation with it) rings true. For all that it’s a short book, Boyce is remarkably good at synthesizing a story down to its most essential elements. Extra Bonus: It’s definitely the first novel for kids I’ve encountered where the emotional punch of the ending is entirely reliant on Facebook. No lie.
Few works of fiction for kids think to make use of the skills of professional photographers. If photography is going to be a part of the narrative (say David and Ruth Ellwand’s The Mystery of the Fool and the Vanisher) then they do it themselves. Tapping fimmakers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney (who had previously been asked to make that documentary about the book’s source material) was perfect. I have a real problem with contemporary books for kids that use outdated technology (or, for that matter, fail to acknowledge ubiquitous contemporary technology). And if The Unforgotten Coat were set today then you’d probably hear me railing against its use of a Polaroid camera without acknowledging its rarity. But since the storyline takes place in the past, it makes a certain amount of sense. Hunter and Heney then proceed to take brilliant images that perfectly illustrate the text’s descriptions. A picture that at first glance appears to show chairs next to enormous trees that look like flowers? Check. Mounds of dirt that could well be mountains? Check and check. The images are all rather beautiful in their own right too, showing that you don’t have to skimp on the details in a chapter book for kids, even if it is only 112 pages. You could probably make an argument that the pictures in the book are prettier than actual Polaroids, but that’s hard to prove.
I’m fascinated by the layout of the title too. Interestingly enough, it’s been designed to resemble a notebook with the key photographs laid into it. Notebook fiction is very big these days, all thanks to the success of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Most of those books are written in the first person by a kid who recounts the highs and lows (mostly lows) of their life with sketched in cartoony pictures. The Unforgotten Coat has exchanged these sketches for Polaroids and while the first person narrator is there, most of the action takes place in the past. The result is a book that feels like it’s a part of the notebook genre, but represents a sophisticated step up.
There’s a moment at the end of the book when the now grown Julie looks at Chingis’s old coat and remarks, “I can see now that it wasn’t anything like a traditional Mongolian coat. It’s some kind of big, ancient hippie coat.” And with that, Boyce just takes a pin and pops an assumption that not only Julie made but every kid reading this book. Few authors have a way of turning you over on your head in the course of reading a children’s title. Boyce can. Can and does. This is, without a doubt, one of the best little books I’ve ever read. A brilliant melding of text and image, it’s a wonderful example of what can happen when an author goes for something entirely new. Highly recommended for any kid wanting to read “a short book” as well as those looking for something a little sophisticated for the 9-12 age set. A true original.
On shelves September 13th.
Source: Reviewed from galley sent by publisher.
Misc: For a good time check out the British cover of the same book: