Monday, April 18, 2016

Guest Blog: Metaphor for mental illness

Reviewed by Elizabeth B., reference librarian

Challenger Deep

by Neal Shusterman
Illustrated by Brendan Shusterman
308 pages
Realistic fiction
For ages 14 and up

Teenager Caden Bosch has been acting strange lately. He seems quieter and more withdrawn than usual. He is also totally absorbed in his thoughts, and is saying bizarre things. He seems to be losing his hold on reality. Little does his family know that he has periods where he believes he is on a ship sailing to the deepest part of the ocean known as the Challenger Deep. As time goes on, these periods become longer and longer until they seem to be the only reality that Caden experiences. Eventually, it is revealed that he suffers from schizophrenia, but that is just the beginning of the story.... In order to return to reality, Caden must first find Challenger Deep and discover its secrets. What is the significance of Challenger Deep? What lies at the bottom of it? Only Caden can find out.

Having been a Neal Shusterman fan since the late 1990s and having read all of his books, I can honestly say this is one of his best. I found Challenger Deep to be a deeply moving and powerful book about a teen boy’s descent into mental illness. At first, I was a little confused by the plot because the book jumps quite frequently between the two realities Caden is experiencing. However, once the reader realizes what is happening to Caden, it is hard to put this book down. Not only is this book beautifully written, but I believe it gives readers a chance to see what the descent into mental illness can be like. I think this is because the book is based on the experiences of Shusterman’s son Brendan, who at one time suffered from severe mental illness. Shusterman talked with Brendan extensively before writing this book, to better understand what his son experienced. Included in this book are illustrations drawn by Brendan, which go beautifully with the overall tone and feel of the book. Unlike other books about mental illness in teens, this book does not romanticize or sugar-coat the experience. It shows how difficult mental illness can be, and illustrates its impact on everyone in contact with the person who is struggling with the illness.

As amazing as this book was, I wish it had given a more appealing cover. When I first saw the cover, I thought it was a book about a teenage scuba diver, not a book about a teen’s mental illness. The cover is misleading and does not give any indication of what the book is really about.

My rating: 4 out of 5

Editor's note: Others must have agreed with Elizabeth, because this book won the National Book Award.

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