Neal Shusterman has won the 2015 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his novel Challenger Deep (HarperCollins). The award was presented Wednesday evening at a ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in lower Manhattan.
In accepting his award, Shusterman said, “I finally achieved my father's dream for me, to be an NBA star!" He thanked his editor, Rosemary Brosnan, “who took this bizarre story and shaped it into something people could read.” He also thanked other editors he was worked with, including David Gale and Stephanie Owens Lurie, as well as his longtime agent, Andrea Brown.
Shusterman gave a powerful speech about the origins of his novel, which he traced back when his son Brendan was in the second grade. Brendan did a report on the Marianas Trench, and discovered that the Challenger Deep depression at the bottom of the trench is the deepest place in the world. “What a great title for a book, I thought,” Shusterman said. But he didn’t have a story to go along with his title. Years later, when his son was a teenager, Brendan began struggling with mental illness and schizophrenia, and “fell off a cliff to a place that it’s very hard to come back from,” Shusterman said. “In the depth of his illness he told me, 'Sometimes it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of my lungs and no one can hear me.’ ”
“But I couldn’t write it then,” he said of his novel. Several years later, when he did, he based his story on Brendan’s experiences in a story that mixed reality with fantasy sequences, in which a 15-year-old boy joined a crew on a ship on a voyage to the Challenger Deep. And he used as illustration some of the artwork that Brendan had created during that time. Shusterman called the creation of his book “a healing process for both of us.”
In a moving conclusion, Shusterman told the audience that “we have to understand mental illness better,” expressing the hope that his book would help people dealing with mental illness to overcome its stigma and open up a dialogue, “to show people that they are not alone.” Saying that the award was as much Brendan’s as his, he called his son onto the stage to share the spotlight; the two embraced at the podium to applause and cheers.