Two Mongolian refugees show up at sixth grader Julie’s school one day, and she becomes their guide to navigating life in Bootle, England. The opening scene, when Chingis (the older brother) takes on a teacher in a battle of wills, had me literally laughing out loud, and those bursts of laughter continued throughout the book. Frank Cottrell Boyce has a true grasp on middle school humor. At the same time, there was an undercurrent of sadness and fear. Nergui, the younger brother, worries about being taken away by a demon, and much of the story revolves around his and Chingis’ various tactics for avoiding this demon. (Which might sound kind of silly, until you get to the end of the story, which I won’t spoil.)
I read a review that criticized this story for being insensitive and misrepresentative of Mongol culture. I did not see what that reviewer saw. I saw this experience of being confronted with difference, through the eyes of a young girl who does her best to understand and help these two boys, who become her friends. But I’m curious to know more about what might be offensive or incorrect; this particular reviewer did not elaborate.
This book would be wonderful to read aloud to a class; I can’t wait to read part of it to my 5th and 6th graders. It is short, and funny, and in the end, gives you a lot to talk about. Be sure to read the Afterword, which describes the true story that inspired Cottrell Boyce to write this tale. This book reads very much like nonfiction, with a series of Polaroid photos (including ones of the characters), so I wondered if it were actually true. It is not, but the story behind the story made me feel like it kind of was true.
The only thing that bothered me about this book was the setting in terms of time. The narrator is looking back maybe 20 years, but talks about doing searches on Wikipedia. The present day bits read like they are in the true present (the narrator uses Facebook). It wasn’t a huge deal, but it was a bit jarring to my former editor’s brain.