The Bone Sparrow


The Bone Sparrow

Author: Zana Fraillon
Disney (Hyperion)| 2016
240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4847-8151-7
Genre: Fiction/Refugee Families
Audience: 9-12 yrs /Grades 3-7

Rated: ★★★★☆

TRUE FACTS about Australian Detention Camps

Exerpt from

Sunday 24 July 2016
Authors Ben Doherty and Patrick Kingsleybaxter-detention-sign

…[P]eople who arrive in Australia by boat without a visa seeking asylum are sent to either Nauru or Manus Island, where most are held in indefinite, arbitrary detention. They are told they will “not, under any circumstances, be settling in Australia”, but there are no other viable resettlement options for them…

The United Nations has found that Australia’s immigration detention regime breaches international law, amountidetention-fenceng to arbitrary and indefinite detention, and that men, women
and children are held in violent and dangerous conditions.

One asylum seeker was murdered by guards on Manus Island, while another died because there were no appropriate antibiotics to treat infection.


Book Review

When you see photographs of this beautiful planet from space, it is hard to imagine how the inhabitants of such a wonder can be so cruel and heartless toward one another. You have to ask yourself…Why? Why does it happen? Why does the world allow it to continue? Why does the world look away? Much like Boy in a Striped Pajamas by John Boyne where a privileged boy learns about life on the inside a concentration camp, Bone Sparrow includes a view of life from the inside of a detention camp by a young girl, Jimmie, living on the outside.

Bone Sparrow is a work of fiction aimed at a young audience and narrated by a ten-year old Rohingya boy born in an Australian detention camp. Subhi has never seen what life is like outside the chainmail fence. His known world is a canvas tent, wind-borne desert sand, extreme heat, little water, deplorable food, scarce medical attention, no schooling and abuse. He has never met his ba (father) who was imprisoned in Myanmar (Burma) for the crime of being an ethnic minority. His pregnant Maá (mother) and sister, Noor (Queeny) were forcefully removed from Myanmar and floated up to Australia in a refugee boat hoping for security and a new life. Instead, they found themselves permanently erased from a world that refused to accept them, living in an hellish limbo filled with danger and violence.

When we first meet, Subhi, after ten long years of hardship and despair, his Maá has retreated into a catatonic state. His older sister, Queeny, having known the real world, is often querulous and difficult, snapping at Subhi as she struggles to accept her fate as a non-person. Yet, we see a softer Queeny serving as a protector and educator to her little brother. One of her great gifts to Subhi was teaching him to read and write. Subhi has seen pictures of the outside world in old magazines strewn around camp but he has no sense of what he is viewing.

Subhi is an intelligent, perceptive, kind, and loving child with a wild imagination that keeps hopes smallest ember alive as he refuses to let his mind turn to “mush”. He listens in rapt attention to traditional stories of the Rohingya people shared by his mother, sister and fellow refugees. These stories fill his nights with vibrant dreams of a magical Night Sea that brings him gifts and visits from sea creatures.

As his mother mentally and physically slipped into a world of her own, Subhi longs to hear her voice once again enchanting him with these traditional stories and stories about his ba. He despairs when the stories begin to fade from his memory. He feels that he will not recognize his ba whenever he shows up at the camp, something he tells anyone that will listen.

One night, in a semi-wakeful state, Subhi thinks he sees a strange young girl standing in his tent. The girl turns out to be real. This young motherless girl from a poor neighborhood near the detention camp, intrigued by stories of how wonderful life is for the refugees inside the camp, sneaks under a weak spot in the wire fence to check things out for herself. In time, Jimmie and Subhi form a close and endearing friendship. Jimmie appalled by the reality of camp life brings Subhi hot chocolate and treats on her fairly frequent visits. The reader will never forget when Subhi tastes hot chocolate for the first time!

Subhi closest friend, Eli, an older boy, involves him in a prohibited intra-camp supply exchange that provides excitement and danger. When Eli’s behavior and exchange system has tested the “Jackets” to their limit, despite being underage, Eli is moved into the dangerous adults-only zone. In time, Eli and others develop plans to let the world know of their existence and plight, leading to some deeply disturbing retribution by the “Jackets”.

As the novel concludes, Subhi has survived the unimaginable.  The camp has been discovered by the outside world and there is reason to hope that at some time in the future, life will improve. He is compelled to carry on the legacy of those who have lost their earthly lives in this genocide of the Rohingya by creating a new story that will be passed along to future generations.

I find my notebook and pencil and I start to write. The letters flow from deep inside me… And my head fills with memories and stories from so long ago that fences weren’t even invented yet… All those stories swirl through my head, but… I tell them to wait. Because first I have to write the most important story of them all. The story which isn’t even a story. The story that has to be told, no matter how hard it is to tell.

Subhi, ten-year Rohingya boy
Australian Detention Camp

I was deeply moved by this small YA novel. It has a message for the world at-large and should be read by readers of all ages. Personally, I have been sheltered in my comfortable life. When the news of the world becomes overbearing, I flip a switch and it goes away.  We owe it to the forgotten and neglected in this world, to recognize their plight and in what ever way possible to provide hope.

Highly recommended reading.


Filed under Book Reviews

2 responses to “The Bone Sparrow

  1. I was horrified when I was doing background reading before my review to learn that these conditions existed in 2016. I have thought previously that the story was using historical facts from years past.


  2. I worked with asylum seekers in Australia, and I can’t wait to read this book. I hate that the conditions have not improved over the last 15 years, or that the off-shore detention centers have yet to be shut down. 😡


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