The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

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The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Deeply moving book told from the point of view of a boy in one of Australia's notorious detention camps. It's about the plight of refugees but also about the importance of friendship and the vital benefits of storytelling.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: July 2016
Publisher: Orion
ISBN: 1510101543

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Shortlisted for the 2017 CILIP Carnegie Medal

Subhi is ten years old. He has lived his whole life in a detention centre for refugees in Australia. He is Rohingya and his mother and sister fled persecution in their native Burma while his mother was expecting him. They left Subhi's father behind and are waiting for him to join them. Subhi believes that his father is sending him secret messages contained in tokens that wash up from the Great Sea of his imagination. And these tokens mean a great deal to Subhi because the camp isn't a very nice place. His tent sleeps fifty people. The food is inedible. Water runs out on a regular basis. There's no school because the classroom burned down. And the guards? Well, with the exception of Harvey, they are not very nice people.

Still, Subhi has his mum. And his sister. And his friend, Eli. And the nice guard, Harvey. He also has the Great Sea. And one day, the Great Sea brings him a new friend. Jimmie is real. She's a real girl from outside the fence. And, in her own way, Jimmie is looking for freedom, too.

Oh, man. The Bone Sparrow is a lovely, lovely story. It is painful to read and sad at times. Imagine being ten years old and never to have known freedom. To have slept in a tent with fifty other people for all of those ten years. To endure bad food, little privacy and maltreatment by indifferent guards; to have had next to no education; to be always uncertain that your future contains anything better. I cried while reading. But you have the beauty of precious friendships to get you through it. And you have the deeply human voice of Subhi shining through, describing the beauty of his friendships with Harvey and Eli and Jimmie. These will make you smile.

And through all of this, runs a thread of storytelling. Subhi's mother had rich stories to tell before depression claimed her and Subhi misses them. He has heard his father's stories secondhand. Eli has a special story about a whale. Jimmie has the stories of her family, painstakingly transcribed by her mother. And Subhi himself has the stories he invents to explain a life of possibilities and imaginings that exist for him despite his detention in the camp. Stories are more than important: they are vital. We need them. And Subhi, at only ten years old, is the wisest person in The Bone Sparrow because he understands this in every fibre of his being.

Fraillon has written an important - and angry - afterword. Do read it. The Bone Sparrow may well be set in Australia but Australia isn't the only country guilty of dehumanising refugees. As she says, conditions in some refugee camps in Europe have been described as diabolical. Here in the UK, the Yarls Wood detention centre has had some awful accusations levelled at the way it treats the women and children inside and there are frequent demonstrations outside it. People are not numbers. Refugees are not criminals. Think about the plight of the Rohingya and all others like them.

But don't think of The Bone Sparrow as an unhappy read. Think of it as a powerful polemic, yes, but also think of it as a story of the redeeming power of friendship and the vital nature of storytelling. This is a story that will inspire you to do better, not to give up in defeat.


Other fabulous stories on the topic of refugees in other parts of the world include Refugee Boy by Benjamin Zephaniah , Oranges in No Man's Land by Elizabeth Laird and After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross . You might also appreciate Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis.

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Buy The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon at


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