Title: Challenger Deepmedium
Author: Neal Shusterman
Specs: 308 pages, with Author’s Note and mental health resource page, Hardcover
Publishing Info: Harper Teen, 2015


Diverse Elements: Protagonist with a mental illness; written by Neal Shusterman who I believe to be a person of color unless he and his son are unnaturally tan (when questioned on his ethnicity, he has replied that he is “human,” so if anyone knows the answer to this, please advise so I don’t look like a big ol’ idiot).

Summary: Caden Bosch has such promise as a young artist and explorer of the mind.  He protects his younger sister from harm–from the mural of dolphins painted on her wall.  He is a great student, even though strangers in the hallway want to kill him.  And he has a good relationship with his parents, even though he believes their bodies have been snatched and have impostors living inside them, impostors who want to hurt and control him. And he has been specially chosen to explore the depths of Challenger Deep and is part of a pirate-y crew sailing to the Marianas Trench.

This is the story of his spiral into the clutches of schizophrenia, his family’s quest for finding help for him, and his own understanding of the real world.  The story seamlessly integrates his delusions and the “real world” he is no longer a part of but which he is eventually able to reclaim.

What I Liked: The author, Neal Shusterman, is on my list of “super-cool YA writers,” and this one didn’t disappoint.  The characters were pretty believable, especially the characters of the delusion, like the talking parrot that foils the pirate captain at every turn.  It reminded me of characters of the delusion from I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (one of my all-time favorite books on mental illness).  And it was a quick read, only a few hours, without being overly simplistic.

What I Didn’t Like: I would have liked to see maybe more of Caden’s real life.  It was interspersed throughout and pretty well done, but I had to fill in the gaps myself in a few places as it was more shallow than the delusion (which I’m sure was intentionally done). It’s really one of the only criticisms I have, and not even a strong criticism at that.

What I Loved: Challenger Deep is based on the true life story of Shusterman’s son (Brendan) who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen.  The familiarity with this illness comes through clearly, and it is poignant, gritty, and overwhelmingly sad.  Throughout the book is hand-drawn artwork which is Brendan’s own.  This story challenges the idea that mental illness of any kind is the sufferer’s own fault and explores the abyss into which so many fall.

Favorite Lines: 
“The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when ‘should be’ gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because ‘what could have been’ is much more highly regarded than ‘what should have been.’ Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”

“And you know the darkness beyond despair, just as intimately as you know the soaring heights. Because in this and all universes, there is balance. You can’t have the one without facing the other. And sometimes you think you can take it because the joy is worth the despair, and sometimes you know you can’t take it and how did you ever think you could?”

“There are times I feel like I’m the kid screaming at the bottom of the well, and my dog runs off to pee on trees instead of getting help.”

“I begin to wonder if David was like me. Seeing monsters everywhere and realizing there aren’t enough slingshots in the world to get rid of them.”

Rating: 4/5

Note: Since reading this book, I’ve recommended it to about 15 people and have used it in my Creative Writing class to introduce the idea of research in fiction writing with a related assignment to research an Axis I illness and write a 4-5 page story with a protagonist living with that illness.  With permission from my students I may post their stories on this blog.