Book Review | The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon

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TITLE: The Bone Sparrow
AUTHOR: Zana Fraillon
PUBLISHER: Lothian Children’s Books
RELEASE DATE: June 28, 2016
GENRE: Junior Fiction, Magical Realism
PAGE COUNT: 234


The Bone Sparrow uses the perspectives of child characters to give readers insight into Australian immigration detention centres.  With a touch of magical realism, The Bone Sparrow makes the controversy of Australia’s asylum seekers policy accessible to young readers.  While I personally found this book hit-and-miss, it helps to spread awareness of crucial human rights issues.  

The detention centre is all that nine-year-old Subhi has ever known.  Although he’s surrounded by sickness and squalor, Subhi sees magic in everything.  Until now, his world revolved around Maa, his big sister Queeny, and his best friend Eli.  Everything changes when he meets Jimmie, the scruffy tomboy who lives on the hill above the centre.  In the dead of night, Jimmie breaks into the centre to share her most prized possession with Subhi: the diary her mother kept before she passed away, telling the story of her heirloom bone sparrow necklace.  With Subhi’s Maa growing weaker by the day, and Queeny and Eli on a dangerous mission for justice, life in the detention centre will never be the same again.

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Point of View and Characters

The Bone Sparrow offers readers an insider’s AND an outsider’s perspective of the detention centre.  While most readers would find Jimmie’s life closer to their own reality, I found Subhi’s world far more intimate and immersive.  Hearing his story in first person helps readers to empathise with an experience outside of their personal bubble.  His skill in finding beauty in the mundane and his spot-on emotional observations make his inhumane treatment slightly more stomachable.  (I would love to know if Subhi’s coping mechanism of blending reality with myth and magic has foundation in his Rohingya cultural background.)  However, this delicate balance sometimes tips, resulting in violent scenes much too full-on for junior readers e.g. graphic brutality dealt by the detention centre staff.

While Subhi is an engrossing narrator, I found Jimmie hard to connect with.  (Her chapters being third person P.o.V. contributes to this.)  I had to suspend my disbelief that a little girl could break into a detention centre – after all, asylum seekers are often incarcerated in less humane conditions than our nation’s criminals.  Even if I overlook this unrealistic plot point, I didn’t find Jimmie’s character essential to The Bone Sparrow’s overall message.  I know her sense of humour lends comic relief to the story, and her bone sparrow necklace gives Subhi a new symbol of hope.  However, Subhi’s character was far stronger, and could have held my interest throughout the plot all by himself.

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Issues of Accurate Representation

I’m aware that some readers may feel that the use of magical realism in The Bone Sparrow sugarcoats the inhumanity of detention centres.  However, as a story for young readers told from the perspective of children, magical realism is a viable technique for making difficult content accessible.  The most important thing, I feel, is for insightful stories about Australia’s refugee crisis to make their way into the hands of our young people.  If this is best achieved through unconventional storytelling, I’m all about it!  We need more people discussing Australia’s refugee policy.

After reading this book, I would love to read an Own Voices equivalent.  While The Bone Sparrow is founded on research and takes a compassionate standpoint, I would love recommendations for Own Voices books about asylum seekers.  (I’m hoping to pick up a copy of They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention when it’s released later this month.)

While imperfect, The Bone Sparrow inspires readers to get educated about current issues.  Fraillon includes these sites in her Author’s Note, as a starting place for anyone who wants to know more about their country’s stance on refugees and immigrants:

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