Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

“We see the world clearly when we're children, and spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what it is we saw” – Garrison Keillor

Cosmic was the first book I read by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It was on the shortlist for the Carnegie award in 2009, and that year – for the first time ever – I read all the books on the list. It was a strong list that year: Eoin Colfer, Siobhan Dowd, Kevin Brooks, Patrick Ness. But for sheer comic exuberance, and a fantastically imagined story (and me being a sucker for anything to do with space flight), it was easily my favourite.

Cosmic features the exceptionally tall Liam Digby, who – through a series of unlikely events somehow rendered plausible in Boyce’s story – gets mistaken for an astronaut and sent into space.

The inspiration for the exceptionally tall Liam was a boy at a school in Bootle, Merseyside, near to where Frank lives, and the school where he first sat in front of children as part of an author event. The school has influenced Frank (and his stories) in other ways, but the subject of his latest book The Unforgotten Coat takes as its inspiration (clearly the wrong word) a sadder episode from the school.

The story centres around Julie, in her final year at primary school, full of confidence, and on the cusp of stepping out into a wider world. But into her class come two brothers, immigrants from Mongolia – Chingis and Nergui – who not so much turn her world upside down, but make her realise that she only has a grasp of a very small part of it. Wilful, intransigent and full of sinister stories of a demon trying to ‘vanish’ his younger brother (possibly by eating him), Chingis picks Julie to be their ‘Good Guide’ – and she in turns seeks to understand more about their country and culture.

Initially the strangeness of the boys actions put everyone on the wrong foot, including their nomadic wanderings around Bootle, and even turning up and demanding ‘emergency baking’ privileges at Julie’s house. Julie initially wants to assimilate elements of Chingis and Nergui’s world, and thereby enter a Xanadu of strange Mongolian myth and folklore. But when the truth of their lives becomes evident, and Julie starts sorting myth from reality, she is forced to intervene and act beyond her age, something which has dramatic consequences for everyone.

Whether or not you cotton on quickly to the reality of the boy’s lives, or even spot the heartbreaking twist towards the end, is immaterial – this is a book for young children after all. What Frank does so masterfully in The Unforgotten Coat is take you completely into a world as seen through the eyes of the child protagonists. The design of the book works completely to support this, looking and feeling like a school exercise book, complete with pasted-in polaroid photographs. The last aspect comes courtesy of a collaboration between photographers Carl Hunter and Clare Heney. The effect works beautifully, and I genuinely can't see this book having the same emotional impact in a digital format.

In all his writing – including his earlier books Framed and Millions – Boyce lets stories unravel through the eyes and imaginations of children. Crucially, he always explores the way imagination can influence reality in profound ways.

This is a theme Frank is passionate about, as anyone who has ever heard him speak or met him will testify. Last weekend, Boyce was (by all accounts) the star turn at the British SCWBI conference in Winchester, sharing anecdotes, inspiring writers and reading liberally from E Nesbit, quoting Richmal Crompton and other authors who bring this quality to their writing.

The Unforgotten Coat is a simple story, and although it is streaked through with sadness, it nevertheless ends on an uplifting note. The message is one of tolerance, mutual respect, and the importance of seeing the world in a different way. These messages can be found in plenty of other children's books, but not perhaps in such a simple and elegant way.

The book has been deservedly shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book of the Year - although my loyalties are slightly torn between this and Lissa Evans' Small Change for Stuart. Together with Morris Gleitzman's Too Small to Fail and Andy Briggs' Tarzan, these are my favourite children's books of the year.

Frank Cottrell Boyce has had a busy year - and 2012 will only get busier. Having also released Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again (the officially-commissioned sequel to Ian Fleming's original) Frank is also about to enter a two-month writing 'purdah' to script (together with filmmaker and long-time collaborator Danny Boyle) the entire opening ceremony of the London Olympics. No pressure then.

If you ever get a chance to meet Frank, or listen to him speak, please try to do so. He is truly inspirational, and already one of our greatest children's authors.

Frank will be at Mostly Books this Wednesday, 30th November at 1pm, for one hour only, to meet customers and sign copies of Chitty and The Unforgotten Coat. This will be his last public event before his Olympic writing duties, and our last public event of the year. It's a slightly crazy day on Wednesday, what with the possibility of disruption to the school timetable, but if - unexpectedly, at short notice - you find yourself able to come down to the the shop and give him a big welcome to Abingdon, we would be delighted to see you.

More details can be found here. And we would also be delighted to reserve a signed copy of his book if you cannot make it, and would like one as a gift. Please let us know.

Regards - Mark

P.S. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Flies Again is as much a sequel to the film as to the book, which is just as well, as this is a fun, frenetic romp of a story in which the Tooting family stick a huge engine into a VW Camper Van, which then develops a mind of its own. Flying (literally) between England, Paris, Egypt and Madagascar, and involving a truly sinister and scary baddy (Tiny Jack - a worthy equal to the childsnatcher) this is an action-packed thrilling story that I heartily recommend for ages 8-11. And a sequel is on its way...

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