This is one of those books that people either seem to love or hate. When I told the Internet I was reading Challenger Deep, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some people said the book is weird, boring, and confusing; others said it’s brilliant. I was a little hesitant to start reading, but after I finished it, I decided I’m firmly in the “love” camp.
Caden is a boy who lives in two worlds. He’s trying to function in the real world, but his thoughts are aboard an imaginary ship that’s heading for Challenger Deep. Eventually, Caden ends up in a hospital where doctors fight to control his ship-themed hallucinations.
If you’re interested in books about mental illness, then this is a must-read. It completely thwarts the stereotypes typically seen in YA illness books:
Love isn’t magic. Challenger Deep shows that illnesses can’t be cured with love. Caden’s family loves him, but he’s still sick. He finds a girl who he’s kind of interested in, but he’s still sick. Unlike in a lot of YA books, love doesn’t magically fix his problems.
“There are times I feel like I'm the kid screaming at the bottom of the well, and my dog runs off to pee on trees instead of getting help.” – Challenger Deep
Doctors aren’t magic. There is still a lot to learn about treating mental illnesses. Doctors make mistakes and educated guesses. Sometimes it’s not even clear what illness a person has. This book shows doctors trying and failing to figure out how to make Caden better.
Medicine isn’t magic. Sometimes, a sick person can’t just swallow a pill and instantly get better. Many types of medication need to build up in a person’s body for weeks before anybody even knows if the medicine is working. If it’s not working, the medicine needs to be changed. Switching medications can cause many nasty side-effects. Challenger Deep doesn’t shy away from showing all that unpleasantness.
“They all think medicine should be magic, and they become mad at me when it's not.” – Challenger Deep
Mental illnesses aren’t sexy. Many YA books have that “depressed, angry bad boy” character. That character shouldn’t be a sex-symbol. He should get help before he hurts himself or somebody else. In Challenger Deep, there’s nothing sexy about Caden’s depressed behavior.
“Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.” – Challenger Deep
Endings aren’t always perfect. Sometimes illnesses go away. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they go away for a while and then come back. Caden’s story might not have a happy ending.
Tragic backstories aren’t required. There’s a stereotype in books (and in real life) that mental illnesses are caused by something traumatic that happened in a person’s past. A lot of mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances. A person can be born with a chemical imbalance or develop one later in life. Caden doesn’t have a tragic backstory. He’s just a sick kid.
Obviously, there is a lot this book does right, but I still have a few issues with it. It took me a long time to get interested in the story. I think I was over halfway through it before I found myself wanting to pick it up. The story switches back and forth between Caden’s ship hallucination and his real life, but it doesn’t feel like much is happening in either of those places. The hallucination is vividly bizarre, but it isn’t “real,” so there’s not much suspense there. Caden spends most of his real life wandering around, hallucinating. There isn’t much suspense in that, either. I felt like I was just sitting around, waiting for something to happen in the plot.
The story becomes a lot more interesting when the connections between the hallucinations and Caden’s real world start showing up. I enjoyed trying to spot the connections before they were revealed. I also really admire the way the author moves between the hallucinations and Caden’s real life. I reread parts of the book just to find out how he manages those transitions so smoothly. It’s impressive.
Also—this isn’t a criticism of the book—but I wondered how Caden’s family could afford to keep him in a hospital for nine weeks. Can you imagine how expensive that would be? Either they’re rich, or they have the greatest insurance in the history of insurance. Nine weeks in a hospital! Can people really afford that?
Anyway, I can see why this book is getting so much attention from readers and award committees. It’s a gritty depiction of mental illness, and it’s definitely well-written and unusual.