Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman is a powerful and moving look at mental illness. I have read a fair number of Neal’s other books, and this one is quite different from those I have read. So if you are a Neal Shusterman fan, I would go into this book without expectations of what you think you know about his writing – this one will defy them!
Challenger Deep is realistic fiction, but because we are in Caden’s head, there are things that seem fantastical, or things where we can’t tell what is reality and what is not. In some ways this is a difficult book to get into, because at the start of the book there is nothing to ground the reader. We jump right in with Caden and struggle, as he does, to sort fact and fiction. But it is definitely worth sticking with it, because the story is so touching.
This book has believable characters and there aren’t the stigmas or stereotypes often associated with mental illness. The problems the characters face are realistic, and how they handle those problems is realistic as well. Although the story doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, given the circumstances, it has a hopeful and satisfying conclusion.
This is a good story for young adults to read. For those who struggle with mental illness, it is a mirror where they can see their story told. For others, it’s a window to see into the life of a character with mental illness, and to empathize.
The fact that Neal Shusterman’s son went through some of the same things that Caden did makes this book especially poignant. His son Brendan’s drawings complement the story well and are a nice addition. In the end, despite the sadness and hardships, this book really feels like it is about hope and familial love.