The Bone Sparrow


By Zana Fraillon

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"Indispensable." — Booklist (starred review)

Subhi is a refugee. He was born in an Australian permanent detention center after his mother and sister fled the violence of a distant homeland, and the center is the only world he knows. But every night, the faraway whales sing to him, the birds tell him their stories, and the magical Night Sea from his mother's stories brings him gifts. As Subhi grows, his imagination threatens to burst beyond the limits of the fences that contain him. Until one night, it seems to do just that.

Subhi sees a scruffy girl on the other side of the wire mesh, a girl named Jimmie, who appears with a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it herself, Jimmie asks Subhi to unravel her family's love songs and tragedies that are penned there.

Subhi and Jimmie might both find comfort — and maybe even freedom — as their tales unfold. But not until each has been braver than ever before and made choices that could change everything.


Text copyright © 2016 by Zana Fraillon

Cover design and illustration by Maria Elias

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney • Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023-6387.

ISBN 978-1-4847-8193-7


To those who refuse to be blinded by the glare, or deafened by the hush, who are brave enough to question, and curious enough to explore. To those who will not forget. You will make a difference.

And to the rest of us, so that we may learn how.

Subhi’s family are refugees. They were forced to flee their homeland, where they faced constant danger and persecution.

When they arrived in a safe country, they were taken into custody and made to live in a detention center. The detention center is in a remote part of the country, away from people and towns.

Subhi’s family, like other refugees, must live in a detention center while the government processes their claims and decides where they should live.

Subhi was born in the detention center. The center is the only world he knows.

Subhi is nine years old.

This is his story.

The knife worked at the bone. Twisting, curving, smoothing. And when the bird emerged, knowing and strong, the hand placed a coin deep in its core.

“May you forever bring us luck and protection, and may you carry our souls to freedom.”

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 against my cheek, and listen to the waves lapping at the tent. Queeny says I’m stupid, saying that kind of stuff. But it’s true. She just doesn’t see it, is all. Our maá says there are some people in this world who can see all the hidden bits and pieces of the universe blown in on the north wind and scattered about in the shadows. Queeny, she never tries to look in the shadows. She doesn’t even squint.

Maá sees though. She can hear the ocean outside too. “You hear it, ?” I whisper, my fingers feeling for her smile in the dark.

In the morning, the ground still wet and foamy from where those waves washed up, I sit and trace the hundreds of animals that have swum all the way up to the tent, their faces pushing against the flaps, trying to get a look at us inside on our beds. Queeny says they aren’t real beds, but just old army cots and even older army blankets. Queeny says that a real bed is made with springs and cushions and feathers, and that real blankets don’t itch.

I don’t think those animals would know the difference or really care much either.

This morning I found a shell washed up right along with those animals. I breathed in its smell. All hot and salty fish, like the very bottom of the ocean. And even though Queeny doesn’t believe, and grunted about when was I ever going to grow up and could I please quit bothering her all the time, she still gave me her last bit of paper and said I could borrow her pen so I could write the words in black at the top of the page. The Night Sea With Creatures. I drew a picture as best I could with no colors and paper that curled from the damp. Using her pen and paper only cost me my soap, and I’ll steal that back from her later anyway. Sisters shouldn’t charge their own brothers for paper.

I snug up with Maá, my legs curled up in hers—but careful not to wake her because today is one of her tired days—and look through all the pictures in my box. I’ll need to find a new box soon. The rats have eaten most of one side, and what’s left is wet and moldy, even after I left it out in the sun to dry. There are some pictures down at the bottom that are headed with Maá’s writing from way back, before I could write on my own. I like Maá’s writing more. When she writes, it’s like the words seep out on to the page already perfect. I push my fingers over Maá’s letters, breathing them in like the smells from my shell.

Tomorrow, when she’s better, I’ll show Maá my new picture and the shell, and tell her again about the Night Sea and its treasures. I’ll tell her every little bit and listen to her laugh and watch her smile.

When I untangle my legs and whisper that it’s just about breakfast time and does she want to come eat, I see her eyes open a bit and the smile start on her lips. “Just little longer, ?” she says, in her English that never sounds right. “I not hungry much, Subhi, love.”

Maá’s never hungry much. The last time she ate a full meal and didn’t just peck at her food was when I was only nineteen fence diamonds high. I remember because that was on Queeny’s birthday and Maá always measures us on our birthdays. By now I am at least twenty-one or twenty-two, or maybe even twenty-two and a half high. I haven’t been measured in a while.

Maá’s never hungry much, but I’m always hungry. Eli, he reckons I must be going through a growth spurt. Eli lives in Family Tent Four with some other families because his family isn’t here. Eli and I used to be in the same tent, Family Tent Three, but then the Jackets made him move. They do that sometimes. But there are forty-seven people in Family Four, and only forty-two in Family Three, so I don’t know why they did. And it doesn’t matter that Eli’s older than me by more than Queeny is, he’s my best friend and we tell each other everything there ever is to tell. Eli says we’re more than best friends. We’re brothers.

Eli’s probably right about that growth spurt because today, after Eli and I have got our lunch, I’m still hungry even though I was given an extra big scoop in my bowl. “You need to be strong to look after your mother, yes?” the man serving us said. I nodded because I wanted the extra scoop, but I don’t know what looking after he was talking about.

Eli leaned over and said, “If you want to be strong, the last thing you should eat is this food.” But my mouth was already watering just looking at that bowl. We’ve had food shortages for the last four days and have only been getting half scoops, so there was no way Eli was going to put me off.

When I finish my lunch, I look down the rest of the long table at the others scrunched over their bowls, and the standing eaters by the wall, but no one looks like they might want to give up their food, not even after someone pulls what looks like a bit of plastic from their mouth. They just spoon through their mush more carefully.

Maá tells me never to look too closely at the food, and whenever I find flies or worms, she says I’m extra lucky because they give me protein. Once I even found a human tooth in my rice. “Hey, Maá, is this lucky too?” I asked, and Maá looked at it and said, “If you needing tooth.” She laughed a long time at her own joke. Longer than it was really worth in my opinion.

Eli sees me looking and slides his half-full bowl over. “You crazy, boy. No normal person could want more of this crap.” He says it extra loud too, and the Jackets watching take a step nearer, their hands on their sticks, just in case we didn’t know already what happens if we cause a fuss in the Food Tent.

“But we’re lucky, Subh, because today’s food is only twelve days past its use-by date.” Eli points to the empty tubs over by the kitchen, his voice even louder. The food in my stomach starts to churn as I watch those Jackets eye each other, waiting on a signal that Eli’s gone too far.

“What’s your guess then?” I ask back.

Eli must have heard my voice wobble, just that bit, because he stops staring at the Jackets and turns to me instead. “Dog,” he whispers. “Definitely dog.”

It’s a game Eli taught me. Guess the Food. Mostly the food is brown and mushed and just about impossible to guess. And none of it looks at all like the food in the magazines that sometimes show up in the Rec Room.

I eat the last spoonful from Eli’s plate and close my eyes. “Nah. It’s chicken covered in chocolate sauce with a drop of honey. Dog doesn’t come in tubs with use-by dates.”

Eli starts to laugh hard and his hand thumps on the table, making the bowl crash onto the floor, the metal clanging so that everyone else in the room goes quiet. There isn’t any questioning what those Jackets will do now, and Eli and I race out of there, jumping over the bench seats and pushing past the line of people waiting outside. We’re still laughing, even though the breath is catching in our throats from our puffing, and I reckon if I don’t stop soon, I might spew up my lunch, and then I’ll be hungry all over again.

When we’ve gone far enough that the Jackets won’t bother following, I pull out my shell and show it to Eli. Eli, he’s the only one I show all my treasures to. “Ba sent me another,” I say.

Eli looks at me with one eyebrow raised. I don’t think he’s at all sure that it is my ba sending me those treasures while everyone else sleeps. But if anyone could work out how to whisper up the Night Sea to send a message to the kid he’s never met, it would be my ba.

“Your dad sure needs to work on his messages, because so far not a one of us can make out a word of what he’s trying to say,” Eli says, and slaps at the mosquito bite on his leg, all red and full of pus. I can tell just from looking the ache it must be giving him.

He has a point. But my Night Sea has been washing up treasures for five seasons now, and the first treasure I found made my maá smile deeper than ever, and her smile stayed all through that whole day. She held the treasure tight and whispered my ba’s name, and wouldn’t give it back until I told her she’d had long enough with it, and fair was fair. That treasure was a small statue of a knight. There are others too. The little blue car with doors that open, an old green coin with black around its edge, a star fallen all the way from space, a pen that doesn’t work but feels heavy and strong in my hand, and a picture, drawn in black, of a thousand birds flying free on the wind. Every one of those treasures washed up here on a tide that no one but me sees.

I give Eli my shell and he smiles, turning it over and over in his hands. “Nice one.” Then he sits down in the dirt and pushes it up to his ear, so hard and close that I can see the mark on his cheek, turning all red from where he has it pressed.

“Are you listening to the sound of the sea?” I ask.

“I’m listening to the stories of the sea. Do you want me to tell you what I hear?”

Now there are at least ten other kids, all gathered around, listening to Eli tell.

“A long way back, when the world was nothing but sea, there lived a whale. The biggest, hugest whale in the ocean. The whale was as old as the universe and as big as this whole country. Every night, the whale would rise to the surface and sing his song to the moon. One night…”

And all of us sit, Eli’s story wriggling its way so deep into our brains that it can’t ever fall out.

Later, I let Queeny have a listen to my shell. “What am I listening to?” she says, the bored all over her face from my telling. “The only thing I can hear is air swishing about.”

“That’s the sound of the sea,” I tell her.

She just looks back at me. “Pft. The sea sounds nothing like that.”

And when I show Maá, she takes the shell and listens too. She listens for a long time, and that ache in her eyes gets even louder than ever before. She doesn’t say anything, but I can tell from her face that she hears something. “Later, ?” she says, her voice all low and soft like just thinking is too hard. That’s how she talks mostly now.

I hide my shell, along with all the other treasures the Night Sea has washed up, down under Maá’s spare shirt and pants, where no one else will look. But just before I do, I put the shell to my ear and listen again, real hard. I’m pretty sure I can hear just the whisper of my ba’s voice in there. Calling out to me. Telling me he’s on his way. Telling me that it’s not much longer now, because it’s already been nine whole years and that’s a long time to wait for a ba to come on by. Someday, it whispers. And the sound of the whisper is as brilliant as a thousand stars being born.

I don’t tell anyone I heard him though. Not even Eli.

As soon as I wake, I know today is going to be a killer. Already the air feels thick and heavy to breathe. It’s going to be one of those days when the sun burns down at you from the sky and up at you from the ground, and there’s not much anyone can do to get even a bit cool.

I can feel that thirst starting, so that my tongue feels big and dry. The Jackets have told us that provisions aren’t due until tomorrow, and knowing that I’ve only got one bottle of water left, which is more empty than full, just makes me thirst even more. I look at the mold-growing shapes next to my bed and try not to think about the heat. I can make out the shape of a dog with pointy ears and sharp fangs, and a truck, and over next to Maá’s bed I reckon I can make out a flock of birds if I squint just a bit.

Already Queeny is cranky, standing in front of the fan and scratching at her leg rash, and going on about the heat, which no one can do a thing about and which isn’t made any better by her grunting about it. But I guess no one likes the heat, because soon enough the whole tent is grumping and trying to budge in front of the fan.

I hate days like this. Days like this only get worse.

Days like this get my skin creeping and everything feels too jangly and loud and scratchy. And now my skin is creeping for real, so I start up adding numbers in my head, letting them wash around in my brain like when Maá used to sing me tarana songs to stop the nightmares. I keep on adding until the numbers are so big and my brain is so mixed-up with getting the adding right that the whole rest of the world quietens down just that little bit.

Then Queeny comes up and jabs at me with her toe. “Out of the way, butt face.” And everything is janglier and louder and scratchier than it even was before.

My legs move before I start something I don’t want to start, and I’m off and out of that tent before she can make my skin even creepier. At least outside in the heat I can get away from Queeny and all the rest of the grumping.

It’s only breakfast time, but already the sun looks angry. The sharpened wire on top of the fences sends splinters of light into my eyes so there’s nowhere I can look without being blinded, and I can feel that grumpiness start to itch at me, no matter how tightly I squeeze my eyes or how many numbers I try to add.

I’ve got up to 1,289 when I hear the horn. It’s Harvey’s horn, because no one else honks like that. “Queeny complaining already, hey, kid?” Harvey calls through the fence. And even though the sun is too glarey to see right, I can hear him smiling at me, right through the sun. Just like that, the grumping itch steams from my head into the sky like it wasn’t ever there to begin with.

Harvey, he’s one of the Jackets. Most Jackets don’t bother with us Limbo kids, except to search us over with their beeper wands or shove us out of the way. But not Harvey. All the kids like Harvey. Some of the other Jackets can be nice enough too, but not like Harvey. Usually the nice ones don’t stay too long anyway. But Harvey’s been here longer than me even.

The first thing Harvey does when new kids arrive is to learn their names so that he can talk with us for real, instead of talking to us by our numbers. Most people have their Boat ID as their number. Maá is NAP-24 and Queeny is NAP-23. But I was born in here, so I have a different ID. DAR-1, that’s me. The 1 is because I was the first baby ever born here. But Harvey, he won’t use those numbers, not even when he’s supposed to.

Harvey doesn’t start until lunch, but he’s come in extra early today, and he tells me to wait and watch because he’s brought something that he’s sure I’ll appreciate. I know already what it is, because Harvey, he brings this same thing every time it gets this hot.

It’s a plastic pool. It’s small but round and shaped like a giant clamshell, so he always has trouble getting it through the fences and gates. While he struggles with all the locks and holding on to that pool and his bag, the other Jackets smile and laugh and jingle their keys up and down on their chains, and not a single one helps with the locks so that Harvey can get in more quickly.

“You lot aren’t worth spit,” I tell them. Just not loud enough for anyone to hear. Eli says that a lot. But Eli goes right up to the person he’s talking to and makes sure they hear every word.

“I’ve got a joke for you, kid. You ready?” Harvey says to me as soon as he gets through. Harvey always has a joke. “What do you get if you cross a chicken with a wolf?”


“Just the wolf. The chicken didn’t stand a chance.”

It’s not even funny. I tell him so, but Harvey is too busy laughing.

He puts the pool down on the ground, and even without shade to keep it cool, my toes still get excited just thinking about that water.

“It’s a hose day today,” Harvey says. “I don’t care what anyone says. When it gets up over one hundred degrees, I’m using the hose to fill this thing up to the top.”

The other Jackets don’t like Harvey bringing in that pool. They say it wastes water. The last time Harvey filled it up with the hose, the water went off and didn’t come back on until the truck came back three days later, so Harvey had to reckon they were probably right.

I ask Harvey about the water running out, but he just shrugs and says, “Too late now, Subhi, it’s already half full. What’s up? You don’t want a swim?”

I don’t say that I like toilets that can flush more, or that tomorrow is my shower day and you can’t have a shower without water. I don’t say, because my skin is aching, waiting to jump in that cool. And hearing that water makes me thirst even worse than before, especially knowing I can’t sneak even a drop because the tank water makes you sick.

But Harvey thinks of everything and seeing my look he points to his bag, full to the top with water bottles. Harvey’s great like that. I make sure not to drink too much so there’s enough to go around.

Out of nowhere, kids come running to the sound of the water splashing into the pool. By the time it’s full, there’s already fourteen of us trying to push in quick before the water warms up as hot as the dirt, our feet fighting for space in that cool, and sloshing water up and over the side, turning the ground to mud. Even Queeny is here, splashing some of the cool up onto her face. I try to help her, but all I get is a punch on the arm for my troubles.

“Here you go, kids. Your very own sea. Don’t go in too deep now.” Harvey points the hose to the sky so the last bit of water rains down on us and tingles our skin.

I’ve seen pictures of the sea in some of the books and magazines that come through the Rec Room. In the pictures, the sun is never angry, but warm and soft, glinting the water. Queeny says that when you swim deep down under the sea, you can watch all the fish and turtles and rays and sea flowers as bright as bright, and that you can lie on your back and let the sea carry you and you don’t sink, not even a bit. The sea just lifts you up.

Some days, if the wind blows just right, I can catch a whiff of the real sea. Then, if I close my eyes and rub out everyone else pushing around me, and put all my thinking on to that water bumping against my toes, then for a second I’m there, with the sea pushing in and out against me, and going on forever and ever, and me breathing in the wind, right down inside, and just waiting to let that water tingle over my whole body all at once and not just in drops.

Anyway, there’s no wind today. Just hot.

Harvey goes to his bag and pulls out toys for the pool. Some cups with holes in the bottom that pattern down water onto the dirt, some toy plastic boats, and a water wheel for the little ones.

And a rubber duck.

Harvey throws the duck into the water, which is already red from the dirt and getting warmer by the second. The duck doesn’t seem to mind, even though feet keep stomping it under the water and kicking it about. That duck just keeps bobbing back up, smiling a little duck smile all the while.

I know a bit about ducks. Harvey taught me. I know that the feathers close to the duck’s skin stay dry, even when they dive as deep down underwater as they can go. I know that there aren’t any nerves in a duck’s feet, so that their feet don’t ever get cold. I know that a male duck is called a drake, and that there are some ducks quacking around who have been alive longer than me. Ducks can live up to twelve years, which is pretty good if you think about it.

I even know a duck joke. What grows down as it grows up? I guess that’s more of a riddle than a joke.

The rubber duck Harvey put in the pool has black hair and a mustache and a tiny triangly beard. It’s wearing a blue jacket and under its wing is a bit of paper with writing on it that says “To quack or not to quack.”

“What’s with the duck?” Queeny says, picking it up and looking at it with that hard on her face, like she’s trying to work something out.

“It’s a Shakespeare duck.” Harvey smiles. I think he thinks that’s funny, but neither of us gets why. “He wrote plays—he’s famous.”

Queeny stares at Harvey with the same look on her face that she used on the duck and Harvey stops talking. “The water’s already too hot. I don’t know why you bother.” Queeny throws the duck so it squeaks when it hits me on the head and is gone before I can even ask her what a play is.

I look at the duck. For a second I think it gives me a little duck nod and a wink. “Well, hello there,” it says.

“What’s a play, Harvey?”

But Harvey’s not listening. He’s moved over to the oldies on the plastic chairs that get all hot and sticky from being left in the sun, so whenever the oldies move, their legs sound like the Velcro on the tents. Harvey tells them to get inside. Tells them about the sun being burning today and there being no sunscreen to stop it turning their skin to sandpaper. They aren’t paying him any mind though. They just keep swatting the air like Harvey is one of the big flies that settle in your eyes and ears and won’t leave you alone. They pretend they don’t understand a word of what he says even though some of their English is as good as Harvey’s. And when that Shakespeare duck decides he doesn’t like living with Harvey so much and suggests he could come live with me instead, I know Harvey won’t even notice.

The pool isn’t great for properly cooling off, with so many of us squashing to get wet. Really it’s only our feet that get all the way in, and then the little ones push and grump until we step out of their way. But just having that water to swish your hands through, or splash over your back and head, cools everything down just enough so your brain can think right again.

I wait a long time, until just before lunch when everyone else has got out, still complaining of the hot, and then I stick my head all the way in and under the water. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any fish or turtles or rays or sea flowers as bright as bright, or that the water is hot and full of dirt, it’s still brilliant.

When I stick my head under the water, the whole world stops. The earth stops spinning, the wind stops blowing, the birds in the trees freeze, and the birds that are flying fall like stones to the ground. I call out a warning first, just so they know what is coming and can get to a branch quickly.

Under the water everything is so quiet and still, and my brain stops right along with the rest of the world. I hold my breath for as long as I can and try not to feel too guilty about those birds that couldn’t find somewhere to land in time.


  • Winner of the Amnesty CILIP Honour Award
    Winner of the ABIA Book of the year for Older Readers
    Winner of the Readings YA Book Prize
    IBBY Australian Honour Book
    CBCA Honour Book 2017 - Older Readers

    Shortlisted for the Carnegie Award
    Shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize
    Shortlisted for the 2017 Prime Minister's Literary Award
    Shortlisted for the INKY awards
    Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award
    Shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Award
  • "Thought-provoking and affecting."—School Library Journal
  • "Outstanding… This is an important, heartbreaking book with frequent, unexpected humour, that everyone, whether teenager or adult, should read."—The Guardian

On Sale
Nov 1, 2016
Page Count
240 pages

Zana Fraillon

About the Author

Zana Fraillon was born in Melbourne Australia, but spent her early childhood in San Francisco. Zana has written two picture books for young children, a series for middle readers, and a fictitious book for older readers based on research and recounts of survivors of the Forgotten Generation. She now lives in Melbourne, with her three sons, husband and two dogs. When Zana isn’t reading or writing, she likes to explore the museums and hidden passageways scattered across Melbourne. They provide the same excitement as that moment before opening a new book: preparing to step into the unknown where a whole world of possibilities awaits.

Learn more about this author