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[Saturday Reads] Immersing One’s Self in the Mind of the Other in “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

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The book I am sharing today is one of the books for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.


Challenger Deep

Written by: Neal Shusterman Illustrations by: Brendan Shusterman
Published by: Harper Teen, 2015
Book borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library Library. Book photos taken by me. National Book Award for Young People’s Literature

As a clinician, I am not unfamiliar with mental illness – I have taught it, seen it, dealt with it, trained people to deal with it. This may be one of the reasons why I remain fascinated with, but at the same time generally avoid, fiction that fall into this category. Much of it has to do with the fact that I tend to inevitably compare the narrative with my own textual understanding of the disorder – or from what I have witnessed with former clients, or from video-recordings of actual people from my own training.

Occasionally, though, I come across fiction books that provide such a vivid depiction of what it’s like to be in the mind of the other, that it simply blows me away. Challenger Deep is one such book. Much of it may be owed to the fact that Neal Shusterman has based much of what he has written from the experiences of his own son who suffered from mental illness. In his Author’s Note found at the end of the book, he stated:

With the help of my son, I’ve tried to capture what that descent was like. The impressions of the hospital, and the sense of fear, paranoia, mania, and depression are real, as well as the “Jell-O” feeling and numbness the meds can give you (something I experienced firsthand when I accidentally took two Seroquel, confusing them with Excedrin). But the healing is also real.

This is not an easy book to read as one literally goes through the waters of Caden’s mind (the 15 year old protagonist in this story). The reader witnesses the gradual unraveling of his thoughts as his mind increasingly departs from reality. Caden describes it in this fashion. I took a photo of the page and edited the image using an iPhone app:


I know all about word salad – but hearing Caden utter his non-sequiturs that are borderline poetry really makes me wonder about the nature of mental illness and how it has been perceived through the ages. This is something that I discuss in my own class – the nature of abnormality, and what constitutes being normal. I was pleased to see this also mentioned in brief in the book, as Caden struggled with labels, and definitions, and diagnosis, and what it means to be certifiably insane:


While it was a struggle going through the cracks in Caden’s mind – one is able to slowly discern that much of what he sees in his visions are still somewhat anchored in reality – as perceived by the supposedly certifiably-sane people. There is a tenuous sense somewhere that provides a kind of map that leads to a different kind of aliveness. The Captain in Caden’s mind who provides their ship (that changes its texture depending on Caden’s sentiments) with a semblance of direction – describes being in the borderline of light and dark, ugliness and beauty, smoke and ashes, sea and land in this fashion:


The danger lies, not so much in the awareness of that putrid stench, or the fact that monsters exist – because they all do in everyone’s mind – they just all take in different forms. It lies more in feeding the beast that lives within us:


There are of course, those who succumb and just give in – simply because there is no other foreseeable end in sight, and yielding may just be the easiest course of action rather than the constant struggle against the tide. Caden’s ruminations about ending it all and committing suicide are aptly captured here:


Similar to Benjamin Alire Saenz’s main protagonist in Last Night I Sang to the Monster who made use of art to find a way around the pain while in a mental institution, Caden also used shades, colours, squiggles, and lines to represent the living, breathing beings that are reified in his consciousness. What is special about this illustrations is that they were crafted by Brendan Shusterman as he was attempting to put the fragments of his mind back together:


I find this novel to be a truly compelling read that allows one a glimpse into the mind of the other – it is not a pretty place to be, but one that is all-too-real.

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Challenger Deep counts towards my Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: (10/24) Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

1 comment on “[Saturday Reads] Immersing One’s Self in the Mind of the Other in “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman

  1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As I am not a clinician, it is difficult for me to know whether a mental illness is being portrayed authentically, so it is wonderful to read a very informed point of view.

    Now for this book, I was aware of Shusterman’s personal connection to mental illness, as he made an author visit to my schools in the fall before its publication and the passion with which he spoke of Challenger Deep was palpable. I found the book beautifully intriguing, and even better the second time around, as my mind made even more connections between reality and Caden’s reality. Shusterman has certainly set the bar for writers who delve into the lives of the mentally ill.


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