Every year I go on a hunt to uncover the best YA books published in the year for an event at my school we call the Mock Printz Workshop. At the workshop the participating students attempt to select the best YA book of the year and make their prediction which book will win the coveted Print Award, announced at the ALA Mid-Winter meeting in January. In preparation for the workshop all the high school librarians in my district (three of us) read as many of the multi-starred-reviewed books as we can cram into a summer. We then select our favorites and create a reading list for the students which we roll out in late September/early October. From that date until January the students feverishly read through the books in preparation for our workshop where they vote and select the "Mock Printz winner."
Challenger Deep meets all the criteria to be a winner. It is a YA book published in 2015. It has six starred reviews, which is pretty much the best possible at this stage. The topic, mental illness, is relevant and timely...up to this point there has been very little written for teens on this topic, particularly from the inside out (I'll explain more about this later.) It is exquisitely written with illustrations that are vital to understanding the text. The character shows growth and, therefore, the reader gains knowledge and understanding of the complexities of mental illness and the stigmas that go along with it. Will this book be the most popular book of the year with teens? No. The Printz Award is not handed out to the most popular book of the year. Students who take their time to read deeply will recognize the excellence.
Challenger Deep is the story of a 14-year-old boy, Caden, who is experiencing a break from reality and is struggling with mental illness. For the most part the story is told from the inside. Sometimes Caden is aware of his surroundings and has rather lucid thoughts. Other times he is aboard a pirate ship heading toward Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean where his crew mates resemble other patients in the hospital where he is receiving treatment. A few times his break is so complete the story unfolds in third person. It is often confusing. That is the point.
Shusterman, the author of the very popular Unwind series, has a son Brendan who battled mental illness. Brendan created the illustrations used in the book in the depths of his own episode. In an interview for Horn Book Magazine Shusterman answers five questions about the book and his and his son's experiences that led to the creation of the book. I highly recommend that you click the link and read his full answers. I'll highlight a few of the points. Brendan and Neal worked on the project together, well after Brendan's return to health. The title, Challenger Deep was selected because Brendan told his dad, "Sometimes it feels like I am at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of my lungs and no one can hear me." The reason that Shusterman wanted to write the book was summed up this way,
Mental illness is by far the most misunderstood, and stigmatized, of all afflictions. Statistically, one in three families in the U.S. deals with mental illness, and yet it’s rarely discussed in the open. It’s time for that to change. With Challenger Deep, I wanted to offer a fresh, unflinching perspective, to help people understand, and to submerge readers in the strange, surreal depths of mental illness, seeing it from the inside out. Our hope is that empathy and understanding will make all the difference. (Horn Book)With Caden we travel on a journey to the depths of mental illness and back. We learn that Caden is not cured but he is willing to accept his life and embrace where he is now, knowing in the back of his mind that wellness may not be permanent. But hey, we all live with that uncertainty. Don't we?
I highly recommend Challenger Deep for every high school collection and hope that public libraies are buying multiple copies. It won't be your favorite book, but it may very well be the best book you read in 2015.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars.
30 books Summer Reading Challenge
13 / 30 books. 43% done!