Brandi's Reviews > The Unforgotten Coat

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce
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Apr 23, 12

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I am not sure that I would have picked up this book on my own, but Peggy Sharp at a recent BER seminar made it sound very good (and she was right!). There are so many unique characteristics of this novel, that I am not entirely sure where to begin. The story is a non-typical look at an immigrant experience. Polaroid pictures illustrate and interrupt the short chapters. Printed in color and made to look like notebook pages, this title has a memoir/journal feel. The shape is unique, very similar to the square-ish dimensions of a Polariod. A child on the cover wears the white silhouette of what is probably a heavy winter coat is visually striking.
The story starts out with some kids on a playground. The town is Bootle, which is just outside of Liverpool, England, but this story could easily take place in any small suburb worldwide. Julie is our narrator and her main concerns at the beginning of 6th grade mainly revolve around a cute guy in class and trying to get invited back to a friend’s house that has makeup. While on the playground, they notice these two unfamiliar boys staring at them.
Once back in the classroom, Julie sees her seat has been taken by the smaller of the two boys. The teacher introduces the older boy as Chingis, a newly immigrated student from Mongolia. The other boy is Nergui, Chingis’ little brother. He isn’t supposed to be in that class, but is frightened because he believes he is being chased by a demon. Chingis explains, “It’s a demon that makes things vanish.” The teacher allows Nergui to stay with Chingis, but only for that day. After school Chingis approaches Julie, asking her to be their “Good Guide.”
The boys explain to her that they come from a nomadic culture and need a new guide when in a strange land. Julie takes being a Good Guide seriously. She researches everything she can find about Mongolia and takes great care helping them fit in. She explains everything from the slang used to how to play soccer. When Chingis talks of things back in Mongolia the tales sound a little tall, but he always has a Polariod to prove his story is real. Julie now has a new goal that usurps makeup and cute boys—she wants desperately to be invited back to Chingis and Nergui’s house so she can see all the fine Mongolian treasures they must have brought with them.
Julie begins to suspect the brothers are not as knowledgeable and worldly as they claim. One day when Chingis lets Julie wear his coat which kept him warm on the Mongolian Steppe, she discovers dollhouse furniture that looks very familiar. She recognizes it as the table and chair set in Chingis’s photo of Mongolian desert oasis. When she takes his coat back to his apartment his mom answers the door. Instead of a happy family surrounded by riches, Julie discovers people living in fear with packed bags.
One day Chingis leaves his coat at school and never returns. Their teacher explains that they were in the country illegally and the whole family had been sent back to Mongolia by the government. It seems that the demon who made things disappear did indeed catch up with the family. Years later, Julie as an adult returns to her old elementary school and finds Chingis’s coat still there in the lost and found box. Inside she finds a tag from a local department store. The coat had probably been bought at a thrift store after the family immigrated. The pocket if filled with the Polariods that now decorate the pages of this novel.

I had several ideas of how this book can be used in a classroom:
• Fans of The Hundred Dresses will definitely enjoy this novel. The two titles also make a natural pairing to read in the classroom.
• It can be used to start a class discussion about immigration; the family had been trying to get the proper paperwork to become citizens but had been denied. Students could be asked to discuss if it was right of the government to deport them.
• This story takes place in England. Students can research how different countries handle the issue of immigration, legal and illegal, and compare what they find to the United States’ policies.
• The brothers make up a reality back in Mongolia that doesn’t seem to be entirely true. Students can discuss why they did this and debate if it was okay for them to lie in this situation.
• The layout of the book is very unique, but easily reproducible by students. With a composition notebook and a Polariod (or even digital) camera students could write and illustrate their own memoir, or fictional memoir in this case.

The book is a fairly short read, only 93 pages long, with several photographs taking up entire pages, so it could easily fit into the curriculum if only a short amount of time is still available. The short length and illustrated nature of this title may encourage students reluctant to pick up a traditional novel to try this one. The occasional difference in British slang may be a bit challenging for some readers, but the context of the vocabulary should clarify the meanings. This title can definitely benefit students by being included in the curriculum. If that isn’t possible, it should definitely be on the shelf for students to pick up on their own.
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