The Bone Sparrow

Zana Fraillon

The Bone Sparrow
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The Bone Sparrow

Zana Fraillon

Sometimes, at night, the dirt outside turns into a beautiful ocean. As red as the sun and as deep as the sky. I lie in my bed, Queeny’s feet pushing up against my cheek, and listen to the waves lapping at the tent.

Subhi is a refugee. Born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of a distant homeland, life behind the fences is all he has ever known. But as he grows, his imagination gets bigger too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. The Night Sea brings him gifts, the faraway whales sing to him, and the birds tell their stories.

The most vivid story of all, however, is the one that arrives one night in the form of Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl who appears from the other side of the wires, and brings a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s love songs and tragedies.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find a way to freedom, as their tales unfold. But not until each of them has been braver than ever before.


The Rohingya people have been declared one of the most persecuted people of the world. Considered ‘stateless entities’ in their country of Myanmar, the Rohingya people face harsh treatment, which has been labelled genocide, from the government.

Subhi’s family are Rohingya people and instead of fleeing to safety they have found themselves detained in a detention centre, where Subhi was born. It’s just him, his older sister, Queeny, and his mother, who just sleeps and refuses to eat. Having only lived in a detention centre, Subhi can only dream of a life outside of the camp, a life like that he has heard about from fellow inmates. So he dreams of endless hot chocolate, seeing the ocean, safety and freedom.

Then one day he meets a girl, Jimmy, from the outside who has managed to find a way in. She wants to see if the rumours she has heard are true, that life is better behind the fence. As a strong friendship begins to unfold these two young people find strength and safety in each other, something the adults in their worlds are not providing.

It’s a big undertaking writing a novel about refugees, especially with the constant media and political debate the issue attracts, however it is an important one and I applaud Zana Fraillon for bringing this story to young adult fiction. While I felt the story was a little bit like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Subhi has a strong voice, making The Bone Sparrow a great novel for young adult readers interested in this very important topic, and allowing for some thought-provoking discussion in both classrooms and book groups.

Katherine Dretzke is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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