challenger deep neal shusterman review national book award

The parrot promises teenager Caden Bosh “A gift of unlimited horizons,” but only if Caden Bosch agrees to “Do away with the captain.

Meanwhile, the captain says “When we are free of the parrot, then we shall truly be free.”

Densely written with absorbing lyrical references and a plenitude of seamless metaphors weaved into a maritime allegory, Neal Shusterman’s novel, Challenger Deep, follows a teenage boy’s descent into mental illness. The book is a 2015 National Book Award finalist in the Young Adults Literature category.

The book takes on a deep, personal meaning to Shusterman since his novel reflects the real-life struggle with mental ilnness experienced by his son.

neal shusterman mental illness
Author Neal Shusterman (r) with his son, Brendan.

I won’t give away too many details since I think you need to discover the book’s meaning on your own, but I think you should at least know that Shusterman deftly wrote two nonlinear stories in Challenger Deep: the gifted protagonist enjoying his time in high school, and the same boy as an artist on an odd ship filled with equally strange characters including a paranoid one-eyed captain and a parrot with a similar ocular challenge. The stories initially appear highly disparate and confusing, but converge as Caden begins to lose control of himself.

The only part of the book that’s not subtle is its title. And while the book is being marketed to young adults, I’m sure that grown-ups can appreciate writing like this example, which describes Caden’s determination during a point in one of the stories:

If I commit to to this dive, there’s no undoing it. There is no safety cable to slow my descent, no camera to document my fall. No one to catch me at the bottom and send me on my merry way. Yet I know I must do this. I must abandon myself to gravity. That’s why I’m here. So I fill my head with all the thoughts that have propelled me to this moment.

Read the book to get a full idea of what “this dive” means.

Or watch Shusterman read one of my favorite parts of the book yesterday at 92Y during the National Book Foundation’s Teen Press Conference. Fast forward to time marker 51:45.


You’ll find a few more devices to sort out when reading Challenger Deep: the ship and the sticky black ooze that seems to hold the vessel’s planks together; those brain “critters” running around the deck; the crow’s nest; the beasts; the threat of mutiny; the white, plastic kitchen and the pending storm.

Shusterman’s abstract narrative never trivializes mental illness but attempts to illustrate how the disease is not as simple as most would imagine. A patient can exhibit complex reasoning which can envision beauty, humor, terror and despair at different times. There is an ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, but that level of discernment does not necessarily translate into making proper decisions.

Neal Shusterman.

Of the many parts of Challenger Deep which assured me that Shusterman has given mental illness the lens it deserves, I was particularly drawn to the passage “Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”

I think Shusterman ends the dual narrative in the most appropriate manner, given the circumstances. I won’t give the ending away but allow me to add that I visited the author’s website where I saw a reader ask about the possibility of a sequel.

(Laughing) Shusterman provided an elegant answer to the question. You’ll have to read the book to understand what I mean …

I’m at the National Book Awards at the moment and the dining portion of the event is about to start. I won’t publicly predict the winners from the other categories, but I will say that you may be currently reading about the next winner for Young Adult Literature. We’ll see …

song currently stuck in my head: “blood” – patsy moore

Update (7:05 am): I took a break from posting this update last night in favor of partying with a glass of Laphroaig 10 in my hand. Bloggers have to live a little, y’know. As expected, Shusterman won last night. He’s positioned second from the left of Fiction winner Adam Johnson (Fortune Smiles) in the photo below. Poetry winner Robin Coste Lewis (Voyage of the Sable Venus) flanks Shusterman’s other side and Non-Fiction winner Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) is at the far right …

song currently stuck in my head: “me for you” – the emotions

update neal shusterman won national book award for novel challenger deep

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