Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman. HarperTeen, 2015. 978-0-06-113411-1 (trade bdg.)
Neal Shusterman writes YA science fiction, but this novel is a bit of a departure for him. It is realistic fiction, but has elements of fantasy, as his main character, Caden, navigates the treacherous waters of mental illness. Sometimes Caden is in the real world with his parents and friends; other times he is on a mysterious pirate ship that is sailing for the Challenger Deep, the deepest place on Earth.
Shusterman was inspired by his own son’s experience with mental illness, and the novel is illustrated with some of his artwork. Caden is an artist who finds his control over his art falling apart as things spiral out of control around him, and the drawings capture that feeling. I have my own struggles with anxiety and depression, and there was one day within the last year when I was at work and feeling incredibly sad and on the verge of losing control. I sat at my desk and began to doodle a twisting, densely convoluted scribble that mirrored what was going on in my head.
In fact, it was frightening just how much I identified with Caden. I think we all have moments when our control of our thoughts feels tenuous. Mental illnesses do not fit into neat little boxes; the human mind exists on a continuum that is ever in flux. We all exhibit some tendencies toward obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, autism, etc. No one mind is exactly like any other, and our minds evolve as we grow older. Brain chemistry can get out of whack. Experiences can forge new neural pathways. Therapy (and reading!) can help us make sense of what we are feeling and reframe things in our minds.