This book won the 2011 Michael L Printz Award. If you don’t know what that is, it’s pretty much the biggest award that can be given to a Young Adult book. The honorees get a big silver P plastered on the cover, and this one (the winner) gets a big gold P. I feel like more people are familiar with the Newberry Award, which is the award granted to Children’s books. Any way, I pay attention to this stuff. I’m a librarian at heart. I also read a lot of book reviews. And pretty much everywhere I turn, this book is praised. It even had good customer reviews on Amazon.
The only negative thing I found at all was from a customer on Amazon, who said this might be more of an adult book than a YA book because the issues were so dark. Clearly, this customer is not familiar with The Hunger Games, or much of any dystopias, or the fact which is thrown at you (in BOLD lettering) at library school that kids/teens thrive on tough issues. Tough issues get reluctant readers to read. And more than that they’re truthful. Pretending that the world has no problems only makes teens mad; they know. We all know. Pretending doesn’t make problems go away.
Any way, this book is fantastic! The story follows Nailer, a boy who simply tries to make it from each day to the next. He lives in what used to be New Orleans. The world seems to be run by oil companies, scavenging for what little resources remain. And Louisiana seems to be split into pieces due to all the hurricanes that the characters refer to as “citykillers.” These hurricanes happen frequently making everyone’s impoverished survival even harder. What Bacigalupi does that at first made me angry, is not explain everything when you need it. For instance, the knowledge of all the hurricanes and devastated cities doesn’t come till the middle of the book. The beginning leaps into action with Nailer scavenging a ship for copper wires for his light crew to sell so they can earn something to eat for the night. I soon came to appreciate the writing style though because it felt real and less forced. If the author took the time to explain every detail in the beginning, like I come to expect, it would be too wordy, and out of character for Nailer, who the book is most about.
In the beginning Nailer falls through the ship he is on into an oil spill and barely survives. He’s considered lucky to have made it out alive and that same night he’s forced to survive a citykiller. This leads to him and his best friend, Pima coming across the luckiest find they could hope for, a fresh “swanky” ship loaded with silver and all sorts of treasures. The kids rescue a girl from the ship, and that’s when the story really takes off. From kidnappings, to machete fights, to jumping trains, to pirating ships, to rescuing friends, and all the fights to the death these characters endure, this is one action-packed book.
Is it dark? Yes, but certainly not more dark than The Hunger Games. Nailer’s father is an abusive alcoholic/drug addict. There are some slightly mentioned political issues involving people referred to as “dogs,” who are forced into a servitude to one master. There’s plenty of mention of harvesters, people who sell body parts on the black market. There are strange religious groups, and all of society seems to be placed into one gang or another. And like The Hunger Games, readers are witness to a society that doesn’t particularly value or care much for children. I’m not used to reading about main characters in YA novels who live in shacks that are known for flying away in bad storms either. Tough issues are dealt with here that involve poverty, trust, and power. And the best thing is that Bacigalupi writes these issues in a way that’s not too preachy. Sometimes it’s clear YA authors are writing to tell kids how to ask for help, but Bacigalupi isn’t doing that. The book isn’t even focused on these issues. It’s about Nailer, and how he grows as a person, and survives.
Despite all of the action, it took me a little longer than expected to really fall into the story. It was hard for me to imagine the ships and the abandoned oil rigs because I have no real knowledge of what they would like. And it took me a long time to relate to Nailer because of how different his life is from mine. A lot of times writers like to play the pity card to get you to like a character right away. (Like Rowling wrote Harry to be an orphan living with cruel relatives and within a couple of pages I felt so bad for him, I had to love him). Bacigalupi doesn’t do that; it’s like he wants you to come to like his characters on your own terms. Yeah, I felt bad for Nailer, but not in the same way I felt pity for Harry Potter (and I’m not insulting Rowling in any way –I love her– I’m just making clear a difference in styles). I came to love Nailer on my own terms, the more I got to see who he was and the kind of decisions he made.
The book was like a mixture of Hinton’s The Outsiders, Collin’s The Hunger Games, and the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I give it a 10/10.