Zana Fraillon on writing about refugee children: ‘Their resilience keeps hope alive'

In our series by authors shortlisted for the 2016 Guardian children’s fiction award, Fraillon explains how a drawing by a child at an Australian refugee detention centre inspired The Bone Sparrow

It started with a picture. A simple drawing in typical eight-year-old style that was titled My Family. It was evident how much time had been spent getting it right: lines had been drawn and rubbed out; every colour of pencil had been used.

But this was not a typical drawing. Instead of the bright happiness of childhood beaming from the page, it was an image of utter despair. One figure lay dead and bloodied; another stood weeping bright blue teardrops. There was a fence, stretching almost to the top of the page, the lines a wobbled check across the paper and barbed wire pencilled in sharp across the top. A small figure with the label “Me”, stared out from the centre of the page, crying tears of blood.

I had seen pictures like this before. They appeared on an internet trail when I searched the phrase “children immigration detention Australia”. What really got to me about this picture was how the child had drawn the sun: it was an angry, yellow face, hatred evident in the twisted mouth and severely angled eyes. And it was staring directly at the “Me” in the centre. I looked at the picture for a long time. Even the sun doesn’t want us here.

This became the story I had to write. I didn’t yet have a plot, or characters – just a wobbled fence and an angry sun and sadness. A friend commented that it wasn’t a great start for a kid’s book: “It’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?” I agreed, but only in part.

The Bone Sparrow - Zana Fraillon

One of the wondrous things about reading – and writing – is that it helps us grapple with questions, prod situations and test boundaries. Reading lets us search for answers. As readers, we can disappear into worlds totally unknown, and test our own strengths, courage and beliefs. We can walk in the darkest places imaginable in a book, and experience a taste of someone else’s reality. We can wonder, and we can hope for the happy ending.

The Bone Sparrow was based on experiences of refugees in Australian detention centres. Centres that have been built in the most remote areas, or offshore on virtually inaccessible islands away from the eyes and minds of most of us. Centres that have been described by Amnesty International as torturous and likened to concentration camps of the second world war. My research showed that Australia’s detention centres are, in many ways, very similar to refugee camps and detention centres worldwide. I searched through heavily redacted incident reports, documentaries, interviews and media reports – all of which left me drained and questioning my belief in the strength of the human spirit. How does anyone – especially a child – survive this?

I almost gave up. A few times I did, only to find myself pulled back in. And then I saw a short video of two children in a detention centre. It was pouring with rain and they were splashing in puddles, smiles lighting up their faces. Despite everything they were going through, they had found a single moment of joy and they had grabbed it.

I realised that it is because my character, Subhi, is a child that he can survive. The resilience of childhood – and that unwavering belief in an imagined Someday – that keeps his hope alive. In books, we can hope for a happy ending.

I kept returning to the drawings of the children being kept indefinitely in detention, looking for small details that would bring the story to life. I came across another drawing, this one a detailed picture of a bird collecting berries from a plant. It was beautiful – and joyous. Among all the sorrow and anguish, this child was able to imagine the beauty and wonder in the world – the world denied to them, but the will that would one day be theirs. As long as they can hold on to hope.

• The Bone Sparrow is published by Orion Children’s Books at £12.99 and is available from the Guardian bookshop at £10.39. The winner of the Guardian children’s fiction prize 2016 will be announced on 17 November.

Zana Fraillon

The GuardianTramp

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