Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Written by: Neal Shusterman
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Pages: 320, Hardback
Series: Standalone
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Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence, to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today’s most admired writers for teens.


Neal Shusterman has been one of my favorite authors since I was in middle school for his clever writing and unique and chilling ideas. Even though Challenger Deep has both of those elements, it is not by any means a typical Neal Shusterman book. (Case in point: this is the only Neal Shusterman *thing* I can think of where Ralphy Sherman does not make an appearance). This book has two intertwined stories that are really one story: we have Caden’s life in the real world, where he deals with the effects of  his mental illness, and we have a different reality that he sees, one that involves an incredibly creepy ship on a quest in the high seas and situations which mirror those he goes through in real life. At first, this can be a little confusing, but after the first few chapters, I understood what was going on and began to enjoy putting the pieces together, especially when it became clear which parts of the storylines corresponded.

I don’t think I’ve read a book where the main character has schizophrenia before. Most of the YA books I’ve read about mental illness focus on depression or anxiety. When we do see psychotic illnesses in YA, it’s usually a parent, and the book explores the effect this has on the child. Or worse, it’s painted as generic-brand “crazy” and used for shock effects and plot devices. So a book like this one, where the author is clearly familiar with the disorder he’s writing about (according to the note at the end, his son, who worked with him on the book, has schizophrenia) and provides both the painful, scary reality and hope for the future, is a book I greatly appreciate.

Challenger Deep isn’t very easy to read. It’s painful, and scary, and there were points where I teared up.  But it’s honest, and well-written. The ship storyline enhances the real-world storyline, and vice-versa. As I’ve said before, it’s different from any Neal Shusterman book I’ve read, but it still feels like a Neal Shusterman book. Above all, it provides hope for people with mental illness and for their families. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and it stayed in my thoughts for a long time after I read it.


I don’t have a whole lot of bad things to say about this book. Most of the secondary characters are pretty simplistic. The thing is, I’m not sure this belongs under the “what didn’t work” category; this was Caden’s story, and Caden’s voice rang true, and that was the most important thing.. The first couple of chapters are also really confusing, but of course they’re supposed to be.


This book brought tears to my eyes in public several times–always a good thing! Watching the downward spiral of Caden’s mind in the first half of the book is particularly heartbreaking. There are a few bits in particular where Caden contemplates his mental illness that are beautifully written and heartbreaking. Case in point:

The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been”. Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.

Ouch. There are so many moments like this, where Neal Shusterman pulls a complete gut punch. His writing is always honest and powerful, with mixed-in bits of humor and a very distinct character voice. Challenger Deep also contains possibly the best use of second person I have seen in any book ever.

I’ve read several books that had the what’s-real-and-what-isn’t thing going, and this was definitely one of the most successful ones. The book’s transitions into unreality are terrifying and immersive. The book plunged me very deep into Caden’s mind through images and parallels that were incredibly effective.

The handling of mental illness is amazing overall, but there are two things I’d like to emphasize. First, Caden’s family: I appreciate that they were involved with the story, and that they did as much as they could to help Caden, and that we got to see how difficult it was for them. Second, despite painting a very accurate picture of how difficult it is to live with a mental illness, Challenger Deep provides an ultimately optimistic message. There’s this pervasive and incorrect idea that if you develop a psychotic illness, your life is basically over. We need more books like this one which challenge this notion and remind readers that even though there are no easy answers or magical cures, there is always hope.


Pick up. Just make sure you’re emotionally prepared before reading it.


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  1. Pingback: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman | Audiobook Review | Good Books & Good Wine

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