Zana Fraillon‘s first novel for older children, The Bone Sparrow, is told from the eyes of young refugee Subhi, who has spent his entire life inside a immigration detention centre in rural Australia. While it deals with sensitive and upsetting topics, the novel manages to be full of hope, joy and bravery. You can read our review here.
We spoke to Zana about her research and hopes for the book, balancing fact and fiction, as well as the children’s books and characters she loves.
BRK: What do you hope readers will take away from the Bone Sparrow?
ZF: The idea that the world we live in doesn’t have to be this way. There is always hope, even in the darkest of situations. Subhi talks about his ‘Someday’, and I think this is something we can all hold onto at different points in our lives.
BRK: The power of reading and storytelling rings very true in this book. Tell us more about why stories are crucial to Jimmie and Subhi’s friendship.
For Subhi, the only world he knows is the one inside the barbed wire fences. And yet he knows another world exists. Subhi needs stories in a very real way to learn about the wider world, and to discover ideas and people and concepts which he would otherwise know nothing about. He needs stories so he can imagine what his world might someday become.
I think it is Subhi’s wonderful imagination which is his real strength, and Jimmie recognises this. She needs to be shown how to imagine a future for herself that is different to the one she sees reflected in the people around her. Jimmie needs stories to discover her past, and her own story, so that she can find her place in the world.
BRK: There are some very sad, powerful moments in this book. Was it challenging for you to write?
Yes, more so than I would have thought. Even in the final edits of the book, I felt a tremendous urge to rewrite those scenes and make things turn out happier for those involved. I knew that if I had done so though, it would have been dishonest to both the story and the real life people who are suffering through experiences similar to those in The Bone Sparrow right now, all over the world.
BRK: While The Bone Sparrow is fictional, you’ve based your depictions of life inside the fence on facts. How did you balance fiction and reality?
I did my research early on in the project. I looked at a lot of images and read a lot of reports, until I had a clear image in my head of the detention centres and the facilities (or lack of facilities) available. Then I put away all the research and let my imagination take over.
BRK: Subhi is a wonderful protagonist – optimistic, joyful. Who are some of your other favourite heroes from children’s literature?
Oh, there are so many! Pippi Longstocking, Peter Pan, Matilda, Mary Poppins, Wart from The Sword in the Stone, Edward Tulane, Ender from Enders Game, Alvin Maker from The Seventh Son, Tom from The Water Babies, Scheherazade – I know that for the next week now I will wake up in the middle of the night, remembering those I have left off…
BRK: What is special for you about writing for children?
I love writing for children because they have such wonderful imaginations. They can immerse themselves so completely in a book or in play and really experience an alternative reality – even if just for a short moment. Children also have that wonderful time ahead of them where they are working out exactly what kind of grown up they want to become. It is such an exciting time of life, a time when anything really is possible.
BRK: Please tell us about the kids’ books you loved growing up, or the ones you now find yourself reading to your kids over and over.
When I was a kid I also loved The Magic Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree. I also really enjoyed reading folk tales from around the world, and I certainly read a lot of different folk and fairy tales with my kids – especially One Thousand and One Nights which is so, so wonderful. I am about to start Harry Potter with them now, and can’t wait for the fun to begin all over again.
And of course all the hundreds of picture books which we read over and over again and never tire of. Our favourite picture books authors at the moment are Jon Klassen, Mo Willems, Julia Donaldson, Oliver Jeffers and Mac Barnett to name just a few.
BRK: What’s up next for you?
I am currently working on a book about modern day child slavery. This is something I didn’t realise happened in first world countries, like Australia and America and the UK. I came across articles on modern day slavery when I was doing research for The Bone Sparrow. I knew then that this was an issue I would have to go back and write about, as it is such a huge problem at the moment, especially for refugee children who don’t have families with them to protect them.
I am also working on two picture books, which is a wonderful because it allows me to use words in a different way, and also gives me something else to put my mind to when I become stuck writing the longer novels. Collaborating with illustrators to bring a book to life is something I really enjoy, so I am delighted to be able to do that.