Engaging with the text: The Bone Sparrow

Getting to know the author including:

  • personal experiences
  • influences.

Before exploring these activities with students, it would be beneficial to provide some context to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. The following topics may be an appropriate starting point for your class:

  • The difference between asylum seekers and refugees.
  • The difference between refugees and migrants.
  • Australia’s offshore processing policies including developments at Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island.
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Activity one:

Fraillon explains that part of her process in writing The Bone Sparrow was about ‘humanising the statistics’. After the Children Overboard affair, and the international condemnation that the Australian government faced, Fraillon recognised that reports about the plight of asylum seekers lacked the voices of ‘…75 million people whose stories aren’t being heard and whose stories aren’t being told’.

With your class, discuss the kinds of stories that aren’t told. Elicit responses from your class such as:

  • the stories of those who aren’t victorious (such as those who lose a race or battle)
  • the stories of people who are different (such as people who are differently abled)
  • stories of events or happenings that worry us (such as a global pandemic or shortage)
  • stories of those who endure inhumane experiences (such as refugees or prisoners of war)

Broach a discussion about how detrimental these ‘blind spots’ or ‘hidden stories’ can be:

  • What happens when we only hear one kind of story?
  • How does only hearing from the majority influence our perception of things?
  • Why would someone tell a ‘hidden story’?

Complete a vocabulary web (PDF, 110KB)about the word ‘dehumanise’. 
(ACELT1626)   (ACELT1627)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELY1730)

Activity two:

Fraillon says that everything in The Bone Sparrow is based on events and circumstances on Nauru and Manus Island. Along with aerial photographs of the camps, one of the main sources of inspiration for the story were pictures drawn by children in the camps. The image of an angry sun was especially confronting for Fraillon. She elaborates more on this in her blog with The Guardian.

Show students some of the drawings by students in the camps. A Google search will reveal several articles with attached images. Choose images that are appropriate for your classroom context and are not too confronting for your students.

Have students complete a gallery walk of the images you select. Hand out three sticky notes to each student. As they move around the room, have students write down some notes and observations about three of the drawings that they are drawn to.

  • What do they notice about the colours used?
  • What objects are represented in the drawings?
  • How are the objects placed next to each other?
  • What kinds of expressions are the characters in each drawing wearing?
  • Are there any words in the drawings?

Ask students to write a paragraph in response to the drawing that they felt most connected to. Have them address the above questions in full sentences using evidence from the drawings to support their discussion.
(ACELA1543)   (ACELA1766)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELY1734)

Activity three:

In this activity, students will explore the language used by then Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, in deterring asylum seekers from coming to Australia. Astrid Edwards, interviewer, comments, ‘It’s not clear to me how many Australians know that kind of language is being used to deliver messages to people who come to Australia,’ after Fraillon addresses her motivation in finding a video message from Scott Morrison that was played to all new arrivals to Australia.

You may like to supplement this language analysis task with some additional material around persuasive language devices, including contention and tone. Further, you could explore the propaganda material produced by the Australian Government aimed at reducing boat arrivals on the Operation Sovereign Borders website or through a search for the ‘No Way: You Will Not Make Australia Home’ poster, or the controversial ‘No Visa’ campaign.

After viewing the message from Scott Morrison, have students consider:

  • What is the issue being addressed?
  • What is the argument being made by Mr Morrison/the Australian Government?
  • What is the intention of the video message?
  • What is the tone of the video message?
  • List some of the techniques Mr Morrison uses in his message.
    • Think about persuasive speech techniques, and
    • visual techniques that might be relevant.
  • How does Mr Morrison make his point?
    • What kinds of words does he use? What kinds of connotations or associations come to mind when you hear them?
    • How does he try to get people to comply with his message?
  • Does Mr Morrison use any of the following tactics?
    • Logical argument and/or logical appeal?
    • Critical or challenging language, rhetorical questions, hyperbole or figurative language?
    • Statistics, opinions of experts?
    • Appeals to emotion or common sense, history, tradition, customs, patriotism?
  • Is there a pattern to the words Mr Morrison uses?
  • How might some people respond to the message?

Have students summarise their opinions on the video message in a short response of one–two paragraphs.
(ACELA1543)   (ACELA1766)   (ACELT1626)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELY1730)   (ACELY1734)   (ACELY1736)


Synthesising task:

Have students tell a ‘hidden story’ – a story that is kept away from the outside world. This could be a story about:

  • a quality that they have that they are fearful of (such as a bad temper)
  • a condition that they struggle with (such as anxiety or autism)
  • something they’ve misunderstood, judged or ignored for a long time.

The students don’t have to reveal something about themselves if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Instead, they may write a story about someone who is living with an invisible story such as someone from a migrant family like The Bone Sparrow or someone else who they think might need to have their perspective shared.
(ACELT1807)   (ACELT1632)   (ACELY1736)   (ACELY1810)   (ACELY1738)


The writers’ journey including:

  • development of approaches, style and individual writing characteristics
  • themes, issues and motivations.
Activity four:

Fraillon and Edwards discuss that children’s literature is the perfect vehicle for exploring human rights because children are ‘so open to imagination’. Fraillon exclaims that children read books so differently to adults because they are capable of delving into the world of the characters with more innocence than adult readers.

Have your students create a story that can be read by both adults and children but where both parties come away from the story with a different message. Brainstorm some ideas with your class first to ensure they understand what they are required to do. How might a story about a family going to the supermarket be different for adults to read compared to children? What kinds of things would an adult pay attention to in the supermarket that a child may be oblivious to?
(ACELT1807)   (ACELT1632)   (ACELY1736)   (ACELY1810)   (ACELY1738)


The writer’s craft including:

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Parallels and contrasts
  • Meaning in context
  • Editing and redrafting/rewriting.
Activity five:

When Fraillon first wrote The Bone Sparrow, it was from the point of view of Queeny, Subhi’s older sister. We come to learn that Queeny has had a different experience to Subhi, including being a teenager, but also living outside of the detention centre. This in turn frames her perception of her family’s circumstances and Fraillon muses, ‘it was, I guess, too dark in a sense that Queeny didn’t have much hope…she didn’t have that sense of optimism and hope that he had’.

This comment from Fraillon provides rich context for exploring the importance of context in informing the perspective of characters in stories. Although fictional, the characters of Queeny and Subhi are both fully formed characters in Fraillon’s mind who react and respond to circumstances in ways that are a result of their experiences. This backstory is important in helping to build believable characters that exist in the world that Fraillon is illuminating.

Have students complete the following table, taken from Creating micro stories: small fiction with big impact! (reprinted with permission from AATE) about Queeny and Subhi with the aim of trying to work out how their experiences in the past shape their reactions in the present and what this might look like in the future.

In the past… How this manifests in the present… What it will look like in the future…
What events shaped your character physically?  




What events shaped your character emotionally?  




What big choices or decisions has your character had to make?  





(ACELT1626)   (ACELY1730)

Synthesising task:

Fraillon asserts that Jimmie and Subhi are foils of each other in many ways. However, it has been pointed out to her by students that the characters mirror each other, so ‘while Subhi had his mum, Jimmie had her dad, while Subhi had his sister, Jimmie had her brother’ and so on. Having characters that mirror and complement each other is a simple literary technique where both characters’ positive traits are highlighted as they embark on parallel plots and are tested in different ways.

Start by brainstorming the mirror and foils of a protagonist in a story that the class is familiar with, such as Michael Gerard Bauer’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael  or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games or your class novel, then have students create a character profile of two characters that either mirror or foil each other in a story they have already written or with a prompt you decide upon.
(ACELT1626)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELT1632)


Comparison with other writers and texts:

  • versions of style and key themes in other modes, media and contexts
  • other writers using similar approaches or dealing with similar ideas
  • evaluation of the body of work within Australian culture and literature.
Synthesising and other tasks:

The following tasks are ideas for situating The Bone Sparrow in the body of literature that exists about the refugee experience, as well as providing parallel materials to enhance the study of this topic in the classroom.

  • Peruse the resources prepared by Amnesty International for the study of The Bone Sparrow and the links that can be made to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights
  • Consider how the story of The Bone Sparrow can be compared to Australian history and the Stolen Generations and the mission camps. A nice starting point may be Sister Heart by Sally Morgan.
  • Morris Gleitzman’s texts Boy Overboard and Girl Underground are two stories that share the experiences of refugee children and their families who are kept in a desert detention centre in a quest to come to Australia. Comparing Subhi’s imagination with that of Jamal would make a nice point of contrast.
  • Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is inspired by stories of migrants arriving to Australia told in black, white and sepia images.
  • No Friend but the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani could provide additional insight into the life on Manus Island for students in your class. Choose excerpts wisely and thoughtfully.
  • For a visual comparison, consider the works of Iranian cartoonist Ali Dorani (also known by the pseudonym Eaten Fish) and his depiction of everyday life in a detention centre.

(ACELA1543)   (ACELT1626)   (ACELT1627)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELT1629)   (ACELY1730)   (ACELY1734)   (ACELY1736)   (ACELY1810)


Rich assessment task:

Zana Fraillon explains that the story of The Bone Sparrow was one that she ‘really wanted to tell’ and spent a long time trying to work out how she could do it and who would carry the story. She remarks that she questioned whether she was the right person to take on the voice of a refugee, and a Rohingya person, and decided that she could provide a ‘bridge’ between the experiences and bringing awareness to others.

In this task, consider how you can use your writing to help to build a bridge between people’s experiences and those who may not be aware of the circumstances or difficulties that others face. There are many texts that aim to bridge the divide between people’s experiences and other’s misunderstandings. Some examples include:

  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio
  • A-Typical series on Netflix
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
  • Forest Gump

Consider an experience that needs to be brought to people’s attention. This is different from a hidden story of your own as this could be about the experience of another person, maybe someone in your family or a close friend.

Write two scenes from a story that help the reader to understand the experience of another person.

In the first scene, introduce us to the protagonist of the story and explain a little about them. Describe to us something that happened to them that needs to be understood.

In the second scene, try to ‘bridge’ our understanding of what happened by explaining their circumstances and situations. The aim is to connect the reader of the story with the main character so that if they ever encountered them in the real world, they would be a little more patient, kind and forgiving of their circumstances.

Word count: Approximately 500 words.
(ACELA1766)   (ACELT1626)   (ACELT1807)   (ACELT1629)   (ACELT1632)   (ACELY1736)   (ACELY1810)   (ACELY1738)