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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

Author: Neal Shusterman (b. 1962)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: Present day

Locale: United States

Principal characters

Caden Bosch, a fifteen-year-old boy who is experiencing symptoms of mental illness

Hal, his roommate

Callie, his close friend

The captain ...

(The entire section contains 955 words.)

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Author: Neal Shusterman (b. 1962)

First published: 2015

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Fantasy

Time of plot: Present day

Locale: United States

Principal characters

Caden Bosch, a fifteen-year-old boy who is experiencing symptoms of mental illness

Hal, his roommate

Callie, his close friend

The captain, a one-eyed man who exists only in Caden's mind

The Story

Caden Bosch, a fifteen-year-old aspiring artist, has been having strange dreams. He dreams of a place he calls the White Plastic Kitchen, where he lies on a table, paralyzed, as monsters prod him and tear him to pieces. There are two narratives to Neal Shusterman's novel Challenger Deep, a fantastical tale loosely based on the experiences of the author's son Brendan, who began experiencing symptoms of mental illness as a teen. (Brendan, now an adult, provided the book's haunting illustrations.) In one narrative, Caden is an average boy who goes to high school and designs video games. He is a talented artist, but he wrestles with strange theories, acute anxiety, and—although he does not realize it yet—hallucinations. This burden compels him to walk for miles and miles each day, turning his thoughts over and over in his mind. In the other narrative, Caden is a crewman on a ship. The details of this dreamlike story shift quickly; Caden is aboard a pirate ship venturing to Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the ocean, in the Mariana Trench. In this thread of the story, there is the captain, who has one eye and a parrot (also with one eye), and as the plot progresses, Caden must decide which experiences he can trust.Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers

Early on in the book, after experiencing several harrowing psychotic episodes, Caden enters a hospital that treats young people with mental illness. At the hospital, the relationship between Shusterman's two narrative threads reveals itself. Caden's roommate and friend Hal resembles the ship's navigator, who speaks in a kind of associative poetry, telling Caden, "You have talent. Talent, talons, tally, envy—your talent will turn the ship green with envy—mark my words!" A girl named Callie, who stares out the hospital window for long periods of time, resembles the ship's figurehead, Calliope. Carlyle, who becomes Caden's trusted group counselor, is the ship's wise swabby. Caden's early days at the hospital are difficult. While his doctor tries to find a diagnosis that adequately describes Caden's symptoms and prescribe the right combination of medications, Caden the crewman watches brains skitter across the ship's deck like rats (as Carlyle sweeps them over the deck with a mop) and visits the crow's nest, a glorified bar, to receive his daily, unwanted "cocktail."

On the ship, Caden is tasked as the ship's compass; he can feel which way the ship is supposed to go. It is an important job because the sea is full of horrible monsters: seahorses that eat men alive and a whale and a giant squid that want nothing more than to destroy the ship. Meanwhile, the captain and his parrot vie for Caden's allegiance. Each wants him to kill the other, with the parrot calling for mutiny and the captain calling for order. Caden makes his choice in a climactic scene in which the ship's navigator, egged on by the parrot, jumps into the sea. Caden kills the parrot, and back in the hospital, the reader understands that Hal, who has stopped taking his medication, has attempted suicide. Caden, an exemplary patient, decides to stop taking his meds as well, and alone with the captain, he sails to the Mariana Trench to make his descent to the bottom of Challenger Deep. The metaphor is clear: once Caden has seen the bottom of his illness, he decides that he does not want to stay there. This understanding is a necessary piece of his recovery, which begins as the book draws to a close.

Critical Evaluation

Challenger Deep won the 2015 National Book Award for young people's literature. The National Book Foundation described the book in its award citation as "poetic, compassionate, and thrillingly inventive." To accurately describe Caden's illness, Shusterman drew on the experiences of his son, who was diagnosed at various times as a teenager with psychotic depression, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. Shusterman's depiction of mental illness is deeply empathetic; while the book's premise is whimsical—with talking birds and jolly pirates—Shusterman's execution is not. He does not romanticize mental illness nor does he make it alien. In his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Shusterman stated that labels for mental illness are often insufficient and emphasized that each diagnosis presents itself differently for each person.

In his author's note for the book, Shusterman describes his son's experiences as a teenager and explains that while mental illness may never entirely go away, healing and recovery are possible. Like Brendan, Caden is ultimately able to find his way back from the depths. Shusterman hoped his book would help his readers understand and empathize with people who are suffering from mental illness and to offer hope for those who are still battling mental illness. Challenger Deep focuses less on Caden's diagnosis, which is never officially made clear, than on his struggle to wrest back control of his own mind. The author makes the reader feel, viscerally, the terror of Caden's helplessness before savoring the triumph of his illness's defeat. For people like Shusterman's son, mental illness is a lifelong battle but the author finds hope in small victories.

Further Reading

  • Shusterman, Neal. "Five Questions for Neal Shusterman." Interview by Elissa Gershowitz. The Horn Book, 9 Mar. 2015, www.hbook.com/2015/03/authors-illustrators/five-questions-for-neal-shusterman. Accessed 5 Dec. 2016.
  • Shusterman, Neal. Interview by Tim Manley. National Book Foundation, www.nationalbook.org/nba2015_ypl_shusterman_interv.html. Accessed 5 Dec. 2016.
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