You cried at The Boy in 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 between endearing childhood innocence and the cold, harsh reality of the life of refugees in Australian detention centers.
The story is told between 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 lost her mother and yearns to read her mother’s stories. Together, they’ll uncover the legend of the bone sparrow, a story of endurance, loyalty, and more than anything, hope.
The problem with most book written by adults for children is that their child characters are not like children; they are like adults masquerading as children, and doing a poor job of it. Needless to say, Fraillon does not have this problem. While unafraid of getting introspective at times, she has the reader understand that her protagonists are children, and makes it evident that they are going to act as real children do- whether they are in a casual scenario or a horrific emergency. This is the overall charm to her story. After all, we wouldn’t have sympathized with Bruno and Shmuel as much if they were children that talk and think like adults.
Similarly, The Bone Sparrow serves to give 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 runs (or rather, writes) in a healthy medium. Though tinged with childlike optimism and naivete, the voices of Fraillon’s characters also reveal stark, all too unpleasant truths about detention centers and refugee camps, including the deplorable conditions and dishonesty surrounding government treatment of refugees.
When Subhi’s account of his conditions becomes too stifling, Jimmie comes in to take the focus away from refugees and 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 containment. These segments are especially strongly written, and create a wistful, ethereal tone that sharply contrasts with what is really happening: hunger strikes, death, imprisonment, dehumanization, survival, etc. 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 towards refugees and their living conditions.
Overall, The Bone Sparrow isn't so much a story meant to entertain children, but a wake up call to children and parents alike 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 I get asked to recommend a children’s book that entertains you 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.