You cried at The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. You were shocked by the unrestrained, grim reality in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Now, experience Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, a combination of endearing childhood innocence and the cold, harsh reality of the life of refugees in Australian detention centers.
The story is told from the perspectives of Subhi and Jimmie, two children with different tragedies to tell. Subhi was born in a refugee camp with no experience of the outside world. Jimmie yearns to read her lost mother’s stories. Together, they uncover the legend of the bone sparrow, a story of endurance, loyalty, and more than anything, hope.
The problem with most books written by adults with children narrators is that their characters are not like children; they are like adults masquerading as children, and doing a poor job of it. Thankfully, Fraillon does not have this problem. While unafraid of getting introspective at times, she makes her protagonists realistic as children through their reactions to events in the plot. The realness and believability of her characters makes it easy to sympathize with them.
The Bone Sparrow presents the truth, and only the truth. Fraillon sugarcoats nothing, not sacrificing tales of real atrocities for romantic, flowery language like other writers in her genre. Children’s writers always run the risk of either being too graphic or too clean when it comes to historical accuracy, but Fraillon finds a healthy medium. Though tinged with childlike optimism and naivety, the voices of her characters reveal stark, unpleasant truths about detention centers and refugee camps, including the deplorable conditions and the dishonest treatment of refugees by the government.
When Subhi’s account of his conditions becomes too stifling, Jimmie comes in to take the focus away from refugees, to the imaginative story Fraillon crafts around the bone sparrow, a legend written by Jimmie’s deceased mother. As Jimmie struggles to learn to read, Subhi imagines himself into the Night Sea, a mental paradise that helps Subhi deal with his confinement. These segments are especially powerful, and create a wistful, ethereal tone that sharply contrasts with what is really happening: hunger strikes, death, imprisonment, dehumanization, and survival. Fraillon places every word with intent, and though her main purpose is to entertain, she also serves to inform, fighting against the blind eye governments turn toward refugees and their plight.
Overall, this isn’t so much a story meant to entertain as a wake up call to readers to stay informed. Though only a heartwarming story about friendship and imagination at first glance, at its core, The Bone Sparrow is a revolutionary novel that serves to effectively bring attention to the issues that the self-serving governments of today refuse to tell our future generations. If you’re looking for a book that entertains and makes you think, this is it. The Bone Sparrow is a riveting book that should be read by everyone, regardless of age, gender, or background.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.