- Winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize, 2012.
- Shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Awards, 2011.
Short, short, short review: Odd, strangely compelling, mysterious, beautifully written, gorgeous production. Absolutely worth a read for the story, the message and the images. 5/5 stars.
Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote this book in response to a true story from his first author visit to a primary school, Joan of Arc Primary, in Bootle, England. He says:
‘The thing I remember most is meeting a girl called Misheel. She was a refugee from Mongolia and she just lit up the room…Then one day the Immigration Authorities came and snatched her and her family in the middle of the night. Misheel managed to get one phone call through to Sue Kendall before one of the officers grabbed her phone. And of course she has not been seen since. I don’t know much about immigration policy or the politics of our relationship with Mongolia. Maybe there is some complicated reason why a depopulated and culturally deprived area like Bootle shouldn’t be allowed generous and brilliant visitors. I do know that a country that authorises its functionaries to snatch children from their beds in the middle of the night can’t really be called civilized.’
He also wrote this book to support The Reader Organisation www.thereader.org.uk. 50 000 copies of this book were given away in the UK. “It wasn’t a commercial book at all – it came from a very different place,” he said. “The Reader Organisation promotes reading to all kinds of different groups, from kids with difficulties to alcoholics, and they were looking for a book which would cross all the groups. They found it very difficult to find, so I wrote this as a gift.” And what a gift it is.
I read and loved ‘Millions’, which won the Carnegie Medal in 2004. Cottrell Boyce has a gift for telling a great story, and his children’s voices are utterly believable. He does have seven children aged between 8 and 27, the youngest of whom are homeschooled, so I guess that there is plenty of opportunity for hearing the way children say things.
In ‘The Unforgotten Coat’ Julie tells the story of two Mongolian boys who arrived at her school rather mysteriously, when she was in Year Six. Now working, she visits her old school, because it was about to be knocked down, ‘and there at the back of our old classroom was a big blue plastic tub with LOST PROPERTY written on it. Mostly trainers and socks and a few books, a lockable Miffy diary, a couple of In the Night Garden lunchboxes. And the coat.
The unforgettable coat of Chingis Tuul.’
(The contents of the lost property box are so authentic, I wonder if the author went and inspected a real one!!)
Julie finds some pictures from an old polaroid camera in one of the pockets, and it brings back memories. ‘It was the second week of the summer term. During morning break, Mimi spotted two kids – one big and one little, the big one holding the little one’s hand – staring through the railings of the playground. The little one was wearing a furry hat and they had identical coats. Mad coats – long, like dressing gowns, with fur inside. But any coat would have looked mad. The sun was beating down. The tarmac in the car park was melting. Everyone else was wearing T-shirts.’
The children go into class and the teacher, Mrs Spendlove, tries to get the little one to take his hat off. Stig-like, the little brother does not speak. Chingis, the big one, does the talking to the teacher.
‘I take off his hat,’ he continued, ‘maybe he will go insane and kill everyone.’
He was definitely threatening her . Threatening all of us. With his little brother.
‘When you need your eagle to be calm, what do you do?’
‘I don’t know.’ She looked around the class. Did anyone know? Why would anyone know?’
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘You cover its eyes with a hood. When you want the eagle to fly and kill, you take off the hood. My brother is my eagle. With his hood on, he is calm enough. Without his hood, I don’t know what he will be like.’
Year Six. We had been at school for six years and until that moment I thought I had probably learned all I would ever need to learn. I knew how to work out the volume of a cube. I knew who had painted the ‘Sunflowers’. I could tell you the history of St Lucia. I knew about lines of Tudors and lines of symmetry and the importance of eating five portions of fruit a day. But in all that time, I had never had a single lesson in eagle-calming. I had never even heard the subject mentioned. I’d had no idea that a person might need eagle-calming skills.
And in 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.’
The quality of writing is poetic, and entertaining. I love the irony here, with what Julie thinks is important to know, and the discovery that other kinds of knowledge might be even more important.
Chingis is one smart cookie, serious and inscrutable. He asks Julie to be their Good Guide, to help them make their way in this place. Julie is completely caught up in his thrall. They boys are exotic and mysterious and she wants to know more. She researches Mongolia and lobbies for the class assembly to be ‘All About Mongolia’, thinking Chingis might join in or even be pleased. But he did nothing. Later she realises that she had been wanting him to turn her into ‘some kind of Mongolian Princess but instead he was turning into a Scouser*.’ Julie is desperate to find their Xanadu, in Bootle. But, every time she comes up with a plan to find out more, Chingis neatly sidesteps.
He tells Julie and her mum that Nergui believes he is being chased by a demon. ‘It’s in disguise. It looks like an ordinary man.’
Adults are beginning to get the idea. Children may still be just enjoying the telling of the story. But there is beginning to be a more foreboding tone to it – slightly less gentle. But still humorous.
The production of this book is something beautiful, too. It is printed on lined pages, as if it were the pages of a notebook. There are Polaroid photos ‘stuck’ in the book, worthy of some time spent looking at them. I can imagine some great photography club work coming out of them. The cover of the book is textured, like cloth, and the title is embossed (if that’s the right word), so there is a lovely feel to it. I think that children of about 8-12yrs could manage to read this easily on their own, however, I do think they would benefit from reading with an adult.
Some reviews by children can be read here.
And some information about Frank Cottrell Boyce can be read here.
*Scouser – stereotypical inhabitant of Liverpool,