Neal Schusterman is one of my family’s favorite authors. My son, my husband, and I have all read – and loved – his amazing teen/YA dystopian Unwind series and his imaginative series about the afterlife, Everlost. I also enjoyed listening to his teen/YA novel Bruiser on audio. Challenger Deep, his new novel for teens about a boy struggling with mental illness, is something completely different but just as powerful. In fact, this groundbreaking novel just won the National Book Award for YA.
Caden is living in two different worlds that are separate to begin with but become more difficult to keep apart. In one world, he’s a fifteen-year old high school student. He’s smart, he helps his little sister, Mackenzie, with her math homework, and he likes to draw. Caden gets together with his friends, Max and Shelby, to work on a video game they have been designing for the past two years. Caden does the drawings for it.
In Caden’s other world, he is on a ship, far out to sea, with a one-eyed pirate captain and talkative parrot, on a journey to explore Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth in the Marianas Trench. His shipmates are mostly other kids like him, and Caden observes them to try to figure out why they are there and what he should be doing. Each of the kids is assigned a role; the captain makes Caden the ship’s artist, assigned to document their journey with pictures. On board, there is talk of whales, sea monsters, and mutiny.
Gradually, Caden’s two worlds begin to collide. At school, he thinks someone wants to kill him and fails a test because he can’t concentrate on it but instead draws a picture with the dots he’s supposed to be filling in. His friends notice that his drawings are changing, becoming more and more abstract, until they are barely recognizable. Caden tells his parents he joined the track team, but really, he just walks and walks for miles on his own after school, until his feet are blistered and sore.
Feeling torn between his two worlds, Caden tries to keep these inner battles a secret, but eventually, his fantasy world invades the real world to such an extent that his parents are forced to take action to try to save him. His life on the ship takes over and begins to reflect what’s really happening to him, as he loses himself to the depths of his mental illness.
Schusterman based this unique, powerful novel on his own son’s battles with schizoaffective disorder, and the real-life experience shows in the intensity and authenticity of Caden’s story. I listened to it on audio and was absolutely riveted right from the first chapters; the narrator did an excellent job capturing Caden’s internal struggles. I felt incredible empathy for Caden’s battles with fantasy and reality while rooting for him to talk to someone and get the help he needed (though help for a condition like his is far from straight-forward). I also requested a copy of the actual book from my library because it includes illustrations (drawn by Schusterman’s real-life son) that show how even Caden’s drawings are changing and becoming more abstract and fantastical.
Some might find this novel confusing, as it moves rapidly back and forth between fantasy and reality, until the line between the two is blurred, but I think that’s the point. This is a first-person account of a boy losing himself to the depths of his mental illness, and I found the narrative to be not only compelling but genuine-feeling. It gave me some insight into what people with these kinds of disorders might experience…and perhaps that was the author’s main intention. Along the way, it was an engrossing and emotional story that will stay with me for a long time.
309 page, Harper Teen