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Six starred reviews. One of the titles on the NBA longlist. This is a deeply personal story, one that has authenticity and hope. Although I’m still frantically reading 2015 titles, this is the book that has me excited at this point in the year. Challenger Deep has a lot of critical love, obviously, but it’s got a lot of general buzz as well — and a combination like that can be powerful at the table.
The biggest challenge: it takes a certain amount of patience to push through the initial confusion of the beginning. The way Caden’s worlds collide and mix up with his dreams, you need to put the work in at the start in order to make it to the end. But this is a read that rewards patience and tenacity because the way the stories intertwine enrich the reading experience as a whole. The split worlds actually are (for me) the greatest strength of the novel; they comment on each other, reflect and refract each other, eventually coming to a merging point.
Shusterman’s language in moving between these worlds, too, is masterful. At crucial points in the text, Caden’s first person narration switches to second person, pulling us in as readers, binding us even more tightly to Caden. Shusterman is using his story not just to talk about a character who is mentally ill; he’s showing us, he’s bringing us along for the ride. We are next to Caden, addressed directly by Caden — the reader is subtly but powerfully tied to Caden’s story and to Caden’s perspective.
As a narrator, Caden is funny and charming despite his unreliability. (Hmmm. That’s not the perfect word, but I can’t think of a better one, so I’m going to leave it there. Maybe you all have a suggestion?) On his family’s trip, he describes his car sickness: “One step short of vomiting. Which, I suppose, makes me like everyone else in Vegas.” Heh. Sounds like a wry teenage boy right there. His voice is what can pull readers through the initial confusion of the split worlds. His utter relatability allows us as readers to go along for the ride, navigating his symptoms; we can’t help but actively try to connect with him.
The other characters don’t stand out quite as much; this is most definitely Caden’s story. His parents take up a parental amount of space (they are humanized and interesting, certainly sympathetic, but are not really the focus; this is YA, after all). The figures on the boat in the trench are well balanced; they start out seeming larger than life (and seem in some ways to be extensions of Caden himself), and end up corresponding to people in Caden’s hospital world. Even with these multiple roles, though, Caden voice and experiences dominate the story.
The writing is really beautiful, full of details and descriptions. “I push past the stars into that dark light, and you can’t imagine how it feels. Velvet and licorice caressing every sense; it melts into a liquid you plunge through; it evaporates into air that you breath.” There’s specificity and sensuality in it. It’s quotable and clear, both moving the story along and helping readers appreciate Caden and Caden’s perspective.
The text includes line drawings. They work to illuminate particular moments in the story, and add movement and emotion. The swirling, disconnected lines can be intense. They’re a fantastic way to see inside Caden’s head — another way to connect with our central figure.
But the big question we’re supposed to be figuring out here: do we think this will take a medal? I think it could. In a way, I almost wonder if coming up against the titles Joy reviewed a while ago could be to its advantage. I’ve certainly got more to read before my year is over, but this is one strong contender. What do you all say?
About Sarah Couri
Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.
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