Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, illustrations by Brendan Shusterman. HarperCollins, 2015. 9780061134111.
As a book blogger, I hope I can bring you some value in my writing: helping you find a hidden gem or highlighting the best new stuff. So it feels weird to write about a book you probably already know is really good. The book, published three years ago, is widely-acclaimed, by a well-loved YA author, and won the National Book Award. It’s not new and it’s not hidden, but it is a gem. Challenger Deep ended up on my phone when I was taking screenshots of my library’s eBook platform for a presentation and needed to borrow a book. Before I knew it I was completely sucked in.
The chapters are short and propel you along quickly through two parallel stories. In one, fifteen-year-old Caden is beginning to suspect something might be wrong, but he can’t articulate what or why to his family. Strange ideas keep nagging at him, he feels connected in some profound way to everyone and everything, and he’s afraid that a kid at school wants to kill him. These thoughts become more persistent, the illusions and emotions become more heightened, and he develops physical symptoms: his artwork becomes abstract and uncontrolled (the art in the book is drawn by the author’s son, who is the inspiration for the book), he walks for hours and hours every day, and he never wants to eat. In the other story Caden is aboard a pirate ship crewed by teens with similar problems. Reality warps from moment to moment and analogy, metaphor, and even puns become real as the ship heads for the depths of the Marianas Trench.
The spoiler/not spoiler (the information is on the book jacket and in every review) is that Caden is struggling through the onset of schizophrenia. The chapters on the ship explore his experience through metaphor and may be the reality that Caden is living at his lowest points. The chapters set in real life show Caden’s perspective as he copes as best he can while his friends and family are frightened and bewildered by the changes in his behavior. The chapters begin to overlap as Caden responds to treatment, and the “real life” chapters show him regaining his perspective and sense of humor. My favorite character was the ship’s figurehead/fellow patient who forms a deep connection with Caden and gives him advice about his future. As Caden himself points out, people’s experiences with schizophrenia and its treatment are very individual: this is only one story and can only really show one experience. But I think it’s invaluable for humanizing this experience.