First up is The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon, which has gone straight from the 2016 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize shortlist and on to the shortlist for this year’s Carnegie medal. The Bone Sparrow is engaging, empathetic, enlightening and harrowing; in short it is a work of poignant beauty that shines a light on a very contemporary humanitarian crisis: refugee camps.
Just the cover speaks volumes, the illustration depicting an open toped birdcage surrounded by barbed wire, with a sparrow flying to freedom, along with best tag line in this year’s shortlist; ‘hope can set you free,’ promises a tale about hope.
The Bone Sparrow is told from two viewpoints, predominantly in the first person by Subhi, a nine year old boy who was born in the camp. The second being told in the third person following the adventures of Jimmie, a curious girl from the other side of the fence.
Subhi – or ID-DAR-1 is an endearing child whose outlook on life is optimistic as he finds hope in stories; ones other tell, ones he makes up; ones he dreams, and ones he draws. Having no experience outside the fences of the compound, these stories are Subhi’s; history, identity and aspirations for the future.
In a place where everything is rationed; water, clothes, food, toilet roll, and hope, the resident’s mortal rapidly starts corroding, and unrest begins to cloud the air. The ominous feeling is exacerbated by the presence of a sparrow inside Suhbi’s tent, and people whisper that the bird is an omen, a precursor of death. Subhi is taken under the wing of ever so slightly older, street wise entrepreneurial Eli, who shares his black market business with Suhbi, literally keeping shoes on his feet. Together the best friends navigate the dangers of life in the camp, from other restless angry youths to bad food, and the trigger and fist happy warden Beaver. When Eli is moved from the family compound to Alpha where the adult men are housed, Subhi takes comfort from his new friend Jimmie.
'May you forever bring us luck and protection, and may you carry our souls to freedom.'
Jimmie, is curious about the people behind the fence, breaks in, and soon becomes friends with Subhi , sharing food, and Jimmie late mothers stories that Subhi reads to her. Subhi is practically interested in Jimmies necklace, an heirloom from her mother; a sparrow pendant carved from bone, which protects her family. Despite the pair being from completely different worlds, they are kindred spirits, and when in the midst of chaos with the camp, Subhi risks everything to save his friend. But as he does so the question is on his min;, is the sparrow a guardian or an omen?
With The Bone Sparrow, Fraillon, shows the hardships, indignities and dangers of life within refugee camps, without shying away from the realities and yet keeping it censored enough for the audience. It is perfectly balanced; revealing just enough to open our eyes but not so much to make it unreadable or inappropriate for the audience, whilst interweaving a deeper fabric of tales creating a rich, multi-facetted unique tale about hope. Both hope of individuals; like Subhi’s unfaltering optimism, and larger hope; the hope that society can change and humanity will prevail.