Neal Shusterman was on the teen literature panel at the first Literary Orange that I attended several years ago. He shared his inspiration for The Schwa Was Here: a student who seemed to be invisible because nobody noticed him. Impressed by Shusterman's original take on the world, I've kept an eye out for his books ever since.
So I was pleased to see his picture on the cover of School Library Journal and to learn that his most recent novel, Challenger Deep, has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. This may be the most deeply felt and personal book that Shusterman will ever write, because it was inspired by his own son's battle with schizophrenia. In his author's note he says, "Challenger Deep is by no means a work of fiction... I watched as someone I loved journeyed to the deep, and I felt powerless to stop the descent." The book is illustrated by his son's somewhat disjointed sketches that he drew during his illness.
Narrator Caden Bosch alternates between his increasingly erratic interactions with family and schoolmates and his voyage on a ship that is headed for the deepest point on earth: Challenger Deep in the Marianas Trench. As the reader progresses, it becomes evident that the voyage exists only in Caden's mind. His parents finally admit him to a psychiatric hospital, where heavy medication that makes his brain feel like Jell-o nevertheless helps him regain a sense of reality.
This book should be read by anyone whose life is affected by mental illness -- which is just about all of us. The insider's view will develop empathy for those who know someone and perhaps reassurance for those who are suffering themselves.