91 pages 3 hours read

Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2015

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Summary and Study Guide


Challenger Deep, a 2015 novel by Neal Shusterman, offers an account of mental illness as experienced by a teenage boy. Shusterman’s son Brendan was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at age 16. His experience with the illness influenced Neal to write Challenger Deep. Brendan’s drawings appear throughout the book as Caden’s artwork. The book garnered the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Plot Summary

When the novel begins, Caden is 15 years old. He is a talented artist who attends a public high school. He suffers from a growing anxiety that compounds with the addition of auditory and visual hallucinations. His parents are concerned about his well-being, and Caden suspects that they are not his parents at all, but impostors who are wearing masks. Caden becomes convinced that someone at school wants to kill him. The idea preoccupies him to the point that his parents intervene and take him to the Seaview Memorial Hospital for treatment.

The book unfolds in nonlinear fashion, with Caden alternating between two realities. In one life, he is a sailor on a ship run by a threatening figure known as the Captain. The ship sails toward the Marianas Trench, where the Captain intends for Caden to reach the bottom of the ocean and find treasure. In his other life, he is a student, son, and brother. As the novel progresses, the reader realizes that Caden’s time on the ship is his perception of his time in the hospital while heavily medicated. He is unaware that he is hospitalized.

Everyone on the ship’s crew has a parallel figure in the hospital. The Captain’s Parrot is eventually revealed to be Dr. Poirot, Caden’s primary psychiatrist. The other patients in his group therapy session have alter egos on the ship, performing different jobs as sailors, cartographers, and masters of folklore. A teenage girl named Callie becomes Caden friend and confidante. On the ship, she appears as the figurehead on the front of the ship, Calliope.

As Caden’s mental health deteriorates and he reacts adversely to his cocktails of medications, the ship’s voyage grows more perilous. It culminates with Caden’s hospital roommate, Hal—known on the ship as the map maker—cutting his wrists in a suicide attempt. The event unfolds during a storm on the ship.

Near the novel’s conclusion, Caden descends to the bottom of Challenger Deep before beginning his ascent and recovery. He is discharged to his parents at the end of the novel, aware that he is now recovering but that the Captain will always be in the periphery of his mind, trying to coax him back onto the ship. Caden is hopeful at the novel’s conclusion because he is aware of his condition and knows that he can fight against it.