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Battle of the Books

Round 1, Match 1:The Boys Who Challenged Hitler vs Challenger Deep


JUDGE – Michael Buckley

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler
by Phillip Hoose
Challenger Deep
by Neal Shusterman

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler vs. Challenger Deep

Oh, why must the books battle? Why can’t they look past their differences to find the commonalities? Can’t they see that they are both made of paper? Are they so blind to their bindings? Their acknowledgments? Their slipcovers? Why must they be so stubborn, ignoring how they both have ISBNs, planned paperback editions, and foreign rights sales that no one will be able to track. Why must they wear their shiny award stickers so arrogantly? Don’t they know their true enemy – the Hollywood producers – will soon come and make a mockery of them both?

“War, what is it good for?” Well, in this case, it makes for a fun contest, but much like selecting a tribute for the Hunger Games, I take no pleasure in deciding who will move on to the next round and who will be shot in the neck with an arrow. What makes it all the more difficult for me is that both of these books are excellent. Coincidentally, they are both about war.

The first, The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose, recounts the true story of teenagers who led a resistance movement against Nazi occupation in their home country of Denmark. The second, Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, is a novel about the heart-rending descent of a young man losing his battle with mental illness.

The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is a nail biter, made all the more tense because I knew nothing about the story. I was riveted by every twist and turn as Hoose masterfully told the real life story of Knud and Jans Pedersen, two brothers who secretly organize their young friends in a quest to be a thorn in the side of the Nazis. Speeding through town on their bikes, the Churchill Club (named for their hero, Winston Churchill) go from cutting telephone wires, to stealing rifles, and even arson in ever increasing acts of sabotage, all while narrowly slipping out of German hands. The story sticks close to Knud, a one of a kind hero – driven and incensed by how his country surrendered to occupation without a fight, yet with the soul of an artist. Much of the tale is told through interviews with Knud himself as he dips into his memory to give us action, adventure, intrigue, tragedy, and even a little heartbreak. I found myself flailing back and forth between cheering for him and his friends, worrying about the family he was putting in jeopardy, and wanting to grab him by the collar to shake some sense into him. He takes a lot of unnecessary risks, especially when the boys are ultimately imprisoned for their stunts, but I suppose a person has to be stubborn to take on the man who tried to conquer the world. It’s a great read with twists and turns a’plenty of lots of sidebars to keep a history buff or a novice intrigued.

My other combatant was Neil Shusterman’s Challenger Deep, a multi-layered narrative that’s equal parts mind-bending fiction and high-anxiety storytelling. Honestly, this battle of the books is exhausting. Shusterman’s hero, Caden, has gone from a healthy kid to one struggling with a mind he cannot trust, one ripe with delusions and voices that borrow liberally from his real world leaving the reader unsure of the ground they tread. Caden’s story is two-fold. In one, he’s a teenager who understands how his disease makes his thoughts and beliefs untrustworthy, trapping him in a prison filled with escape routes that change by the second, and another storyline in which he is yanked from reality to take part in a voyage to the deepest part of the ocean, a trench known as Challenger Deep, rumored to be the resting place of untold treasures. Led onward by a one-eyed pirate and his one-eyed parrot, and chased by a sea monster, the shift from reality to fantasy can be a jarring one, I believe completely intentional. Shusterman designed this story to make us feel as if we too are off kilter and Caden’s imbalance will bring you to tears. His struggle to regain control of his mind and trusting in others to get the help he needs is excruciating. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to hug a fictional character so much in my life. Shusterman knows his way around a sentence. His writing is beautiful and crisp and inspired and his knowledge of the subject firsthand adds so much. According to his acknowledgements, his son Brendan fought his own battle and won. Brendan’s thin, swirling doodles blow through the pages like the wind in a sail, reminding us that mental illness is not something so easily tamed.

Unfortunately, I have to choose a winner in this battle and may history have mercy on me. It’s no fun to have blood on your hands, even if that blood is literary. Both books are outstanding, and I would enthusiastically recommend each. Still I have to pick one and for me, it’s Challenger Deep. Shusterman’s prose is vivid, no easy feat when trying to make the intangible examinable. He puts the reader into Caden’s shoes in ways that generate wonder and sometimes real despair, but mostly I’m impressed with its unexpected uniqueness. I don’t think I’ve read anything like this for a young person. It’s bold, and chooses not to wrap the world up in a pretty bow for that feel good ending. War is Hell, as they say, and Caden goes there and back again and Shusterman lets us go along for every harrowing step of the way.

— Michael Buckley

Let the war begin! Buckley’s opening statement, while very funny, makes me hope (Roger Sutton-like style, judging the judges) that the judges will get to the chase this year and not bemoan apples and oranges! Still, Buckley hits the nail on the head in comparing the two books through the subject of war. For me, his final decision rings true, mostly because, as he implies, the urgency and consequences of Caden’s mental war seems more vivid and immediate than Hoose’s coming of age tale during a physical war. There are lots of stories about teenage heroes engaged in all sorts of battles. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler is one such story, expertly told and full of suspense. But we don’t have enough of a “so what?,” only realizing in the appendix that many members of the Churchill Club were depressed or mentally troubled by the memory of war. Those largely forgotten stories of kids engaged in a mental battle, much more rare, make Challenger Deep shine.

– Kid Commentator RGN





  1. Other Meredith says

    I loved The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, but I haven’t read Challenger Deep yet (it’s one of the 7 I haven’t finished. I am so far behind this year!). Now I’m really looking forward to it.

  2. Kid Commentator NS says

    I was, unfortunately, late to the game on this one and I didn’t make it into the post. Oh well! My thoughts are below.

    ~The resonant sound of a distant gong is heard across the land as the annual Battle of the Books commences.~ And so it begins! I have to say, I’m quite biased. I like books that read as fiction, even if they’re not, and The Boys Who Challenged Hitler just didn’t do that for me. So right off the bat I favored Challenger Deep. I had really hoped that The Boys Who Challenged Hitler would be a riveting story of these young boys unsatisfied with the Nazi regime who sparked a revolution. Unfortunately, it did all of that except rivet me. I found myself trudging through it, weighed down by the feeling of a textbook that tries too hard to form a narrative. And as for Challenger Deep, I really wanted to find out what happened to Caden. His struggle felt so real to me, and paired with my own imagination, I was sobbing by the end. And isn’t that the goal of any book? For me at least, when I read a book I want to feel connected to the characters, to be drawn in and feel something, and as upsetting Challenger Deep was, it was more of an emotional rollercoaster.

    -Kid Commentator NS

  3. My tournament participants number 201 now. Of those students and teachers in the game, 84 predicted Challenger Deep the winner in this match and 115 predicted The Boys Who Challenged Hitler to win. We are off Spring Breaking this week, so I emailed everyone their results and updated the spreadsheet. Can’t wait to see how it goes tomorrow! Some will advance victorious in predictions through Match 2, some will fall out, and some will jump in. This is great fun! Thanks to all for providing the platform.

    • Battle Commander Battle Commander says

      Donna, we are in the process of making a submission form for Mock BoB activities in schools and libraries (homes & work places, too!) Please make sure you read this Friday’s post and encourage your participants to follow this site and post their personal comments, too!

  4. Challenger Deep was difficult for me to read because it was so real. I knew where we were going and I didn’t want to go. I actually had to listen to it because I couldn’t make myself pick it up after a few chapters. I loved the story in the end and I picked it for the winner in this round.
    I enjoyed reading about The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, learning about unknown pieces of a hugely written about time period is always interesting to me. I especially liked it after reading Symphony For the City of the Dead, adding more to my understanding. So excited the Battle is here!

  5. Battle Commander Battle Commander says

    Lisa at Reads for Keeps predicted all match outcomes — alas, her first round choice was not the same as Judge Buckley’s!

  6. Yay for Challenger Deep. I loved, loved loved this book and have been recommending it to everyone I know. For me the way the strange hallucinatory world of Caden’s delusions dovetailed with real life events was so clever and the whole so moving.

  7. This was a hard battle to choose! I agree with the judge though; as much as I enjoyed The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, I found Challenger Deep to be a more unique reading experience. I wish there were more books like it that explored mental illness without providing any facile answers!

  8. And my losing streak continues! It does not matter whether I try to pick books I liked best or if I second-guess myself, I nearly always pick the book that loses. Sigh. Perhaps next year I shall select the books at random, so I can be truly surprised on the outcome! 🙂

  9. Paige Ysteboe says

    I really enjoyed The Boys Who Challenged Hitler, but then I love pretty much everything published about World War II. I found Challenger Deep to be painful — it took me a long time to get into it, but after I did, I felt so very sorry for Caden. Shusterman does an incredible job of depicting schizophrenia. Although I liked The Boys Who Challenged Hitler better, I think Challenger Deep was the correct pick.

  10. I began CHALLENGER DEEP three times and broken by it’s rawness had to set it aside each time. I have faith that at some point I will have the strength to finish it as by all accounts it is worth the battle.

    That being confessed I’m happy with this result. While I admired THE BOYS WHO CHALLENGED HITLER. I took umbrage with the fact the Hoose did nothing to let the reader understand that Denmark may have had good reason for not resisting the invasion. Unlike Norway, Denmark is flat with no hand mountains to resist from. A government faced with a probable brutal annihilation of its people took a prudent track and saved many lives. In a non-fiction book i found the omission troubling.

    As unjust as I find schizophrenia, an honest look at it, beautifully and skillfully delivered deserves the win. Good one on you, Judge Buckley.

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