British author Frank Cottrell Boyce is probably best known for his book Millions, the story of two brothers who find a bag of money by the side of the railroad tracks. The story was later made into a movie directed by Danny Boyle. Boyce is himself a screenwriter (his films include Welcome to Sarajevo). And while his latest work for children, The Unforgotten Coat, is fiction, it includes photographs of real people which make it feel almost like a film or documentary story itself.
The story begins with a photograph taken during Julie’s Year Six class. As it happens, she is finding this photo and others years later, in the pocket of an unusual coat left behind at her old school. Through Julie’s memories, we learn that the photographer was a Mongolian boy named Chingis, who appeared suddenly in school one day along with his little brother, Nergui.
Chingis, a very self-possessed kid, immediately appoints Julie to be their “Good Guide.” He tells her, “ ‘In Mongolia we are nomads. When we come to a new country, we need to find a Good Guide. You will be our Good Guide in this place. Agree?’ “
Julie is thrilled: “ ‘Of course I agreed. No one had ever asked me to be anything before, definitely not anything involving a title.’ “
Julie takes her responsibility seriously. She does research on Mongolia and tries to get to know the new boys as best she can. But Julie soon finds that being a Good Guide to Chingis and Nergui is more difficult than she could have imagined.
Their lives seem to be surrounded in mystery. They walk home a different way each day. She can’t help but realize that the boys—and their parents—are afraid of something. Is it, as Chingis tells her, that Nergui believes he is being chased by a demon? Or is there something else troubling them—something beyond Julie’s ability to understand or fix?
This is a funny, sad and heartwarming story of the ways in which children come together and make their own communities. As Boyce notes in the afterword, The Unforgotten Coat was inspired by the story of a young Mongolian refugee named Misheel, whom he met during his very first author visit, to the Joan of Arc Primary school in Bootle, near Liverpool. And while the photograph in the book of a grown-up Chingis and Nergui isn’t real, you can almost believe it is.