Ship Breaker

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Current & Digital Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.

Reading Level: Ages 14 & Up

William Alexander writes:

The very beginning of a book can hold the whole thing in fractal miniature. Ship Breaker's first page gives us a young protagonist crawling through service ducts inside a beached oil tanker. The boy, Nailer, works in salvage, reclaiming copper wire from the rusting relic of an earlier age (ours): "Ancient asbestos fibers and mouse grit puffed up around him as the wire tore loose."

That's the second sentence of the novel. It absolutely freaks me out.

My own home and family are both asbestos-haunted. I've lost relatives to the stuff, former mechanics who spent long hours sanding asbestos break pads, breathing it in, and losing fights with lung cancer later. My house is old by American standards, and therefore made out of toxic hubris of a (slightly) earlier age. Asbestos tile covers the outside, and asbestos insulation coats pipes in the basement and wires in the walls. Shouldn't be dangerous if we leave it alone, so we're leaving it alone. I try not to think about it. I still hold my breath when I read about Nailer crawling through a cloud of asbestos dust—at least until the second page takes mercy on me and mentions his mask:

The mask was a hand-me-down, given to him by his father. It itched and never sealed quite right because it was the wrong size, but it was all Nailer had. On its side, faded words said: DISCARD AFTER 40 HOURS USE. But Nailer didn't have another, and no one else did either. He was lucky to have a mask at all, even if the microfibers were beginning to shred from repeated scrubbings in the ocean.
Sloth, his crewgirl, made fun of him whenever he washed the mask, asking why he even bothered. It just made the hellish duct work hotter and more uncomfortable. There was no point, she said. Sometimes he thought she was right. But Pima's mother told him and Pima to use the masks no matter what, and for sure there was a lot of black grime in the filters when he immersed them in the ocean. That was the black that wasn't in his lungs, Pima's mother said, so he kept on with the mask, even though he felt like he was smothering every time he sucked humid tropic air through the clogged breath-wet fibers.

Nailer's world is one of scarcity and scavenge. He isn't alone, though. He has people who care about the contents of his lungs. He has Pima's mother looking after him and Pima both. And he received that mask from his father. There's no hint of the man's villainy here, but the theme of paternal inheritance is more significant than his role as Bad Guy. Much of the story will hinge on what else our hero might have inherited from his father. 

All of the novel's settings and circumstances are as harrowing as that toxic service duct. But Nailer's smart, and lucky, and he isn't alone. We learn that immediately, long before we encounter Nina, navel battles, half-men, and science-fictional awesomeness. He's stuck in the rusting corpse of a ship, breaking it up piece by tiny piece—just as people in Alang are breaking ships right now, today. The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed. But Nailer might not be entirely stuck. He's smart, he's lucky, and he isn't alone.

William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. He lives and teaches in the Twin Cities.


YPL Finalists That Year:

  • Paolo Bacigalupi for Ship Breaker
  • Laura McNeal for Dark Water
  • Walter Dean Myers for Lockdown
  • Rita Williams-Garcia for One Crazy Summer

YPL Winner That Year: Kathryn Erksine for Mockingbird

Judges That Year: Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Tor Seidler, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zarr

The Year in Literature: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery Medal.  Going Bovine by Libba Bray won the Printz Award.

More Information: Bacigalupi majored in Chinese in college, which enabled him to teach in China and visit much of Southeastern Asia. These experiences influenced his work on both Ship Breaker and its 2012 follow up, Drowned Cities.

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