“Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman: A Discussion Guide For Writers

discussion questions prepared by Kelly Carey

cd.pngNeal Shusterman’s novel Challenger Deep is a reality-bending study of one teenage boy’s struggle with mental illness. By studying Shusterman’s novel, writers can explore the use of an unreliable narrator, consider the complexity of managing two different plot lines, and examine the methods Shusterman employs to write accurately and sensitively about mental health.

Use the discussion questions on your own or with a book group to investigate Challenger Deep. As you consider each question, take note of how your own manuscripts apply Shusterman’s methods.

These discussion questions were inspired by the KidLit Book Club meeting at The Writers’ Loft. We’d love to have you join us. Check out the Loft calendar to find out about our next meeting!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Shusterman’s story is told through the first person narration of a mentally ill teenager. How well does Caden work as the narrator of his own story? What are the benefits and pitfalls of using a mentally ill or unreliable narrator? If Shusterman had picked a different narrator—Caden’s parents, sister, or doctor—or told the story in third person, how would the novel have been different? Consider who is telling the story in your own manuscripts—have you picked the right narrator?
  2. Shusterman’s novel is told in 161 short chapters that bounce between the two realities of Caden’s mental world. In one world, Caden is a teenager socializing with friends and planning school projects, and in the other, he is trapped on a boat with a chaotic captain and crew. The chapters are often only a page or two long. How does this format benefit the story? How do the quick chapters allow the reader to understand Caden’s view of the world?
  3. How does Shusterman help readers relate and connect to an unreliable MC with mental health issues? How did the use of Caden as a narrator and the quick and chaotic chapters help readers gain insight into Shusterman’s MC?
  4. The novel is peppered with pencil drawings by Caden (in reality, the drawings were done by Shusterman’s own son, who struggled with mental health issues). How do the illustrations help or hurt the story? Compare the use of the drawings in Challenger Deep to the drawings in The Inquisitors Tale by Adam Gidwitz. How did the two authors employ illustrations in their novels?
  5. Readers may feel confused and off balance for much of Shusterman’s novel. Do you think this was by design? Does this help the reader understand the terrible reality of mental illness? Does the reader need to feel that confusion to appreciate Caden and the novel? Readers may stop reading a novel if the plot and/or narrator is confusing. How do writers balance a need to let a story unfold naturally—allowing for unknowns and chaos—with a reader’s need to feel comfortable?
  6. Authors are often advised to write what they know. Shusterman mined his own family’s experience with mental illness to write Challenger Deep. When writing a novel on a sensitive subject like mental health, does the author need first-hand knowledge? Is Shusterman’s novel given more credibility because of his own life experience?
  7. Compare and contrast how mental health issues are presented in Challenger Deep, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, and in Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish. How did the authors use POV, setting, chapter length, and plot to tell their stories?

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