Beautiful Books: Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep
by Neal Shusterman

From the back cover: Caden Bosch is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. Caden Bosch is designated the ship’s artist in residence to document the journey with images. Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. Caden Bosch is torn.

Challenger Deep is a difficult book to discuss without potentially spoiling you, but I think I’ve got it figured out.

I’m truly in awe of Neal Shusterman’s creation, and the skill and effort it required of him. Though I figured out what was up early on–the basics, anyway–reading Challenger Deep with that knowledge in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book. On the contrary, it heightened my enjoyment of it, and made me root for Caden all the more desperately.

There’s a lot going on, and the alternating landscapes (or seascapes) may seem confusing at first, but the clues are there. I’m still turning several details and incidents over and over in my head; this is definitely a book I’ll reread to see if I can puzzle those bits out the second time around.

What can I say safely? Caden’s journey is harrowing, and he learns lessons at fifteen that most of us don’t have to learn until much later. The people who love us hurt when we hurt. Nothing is certain except that anything can happen. We can’t control anyone but ourselves…and sometimes, we can’t even do that. Some things are irretrievable.

Most of us get to learn those lessons one at a time, in stages, and often repeatedly. We get to forget them when it’s convenient. Caden doesn’t have that privilege.

Challenger Deep is a book I’ll recommend widely and passionately. It’s the kind of book I want to actually place in your hands. The kind of book that, as you read, I’ll keep asking, “so what part are you at?” and I might even lend you my copy…then wish I hadn’t, because lending it out made me want to reread it.

If you’ve ever felt lost at sea…if you’ve ever been terrified of the voyage back…or had to let someone go…or trust the untrustworthy…or succumbed to a siren’s song…you’ll find something you can share with Caden.


For July 12: Hmmmm…I don’t know. It’s summer, and I have a shelf full of diverse books beckoning. Perhaps, from here on out, I’ll see which of them I’m drawn to next and just surprise everyone.

Beautiful Books: The Complete Persepolis

The Complete Persepolis
Marjane Satrapi

From the inner flap: Persepolis is the story of Satrapi’s unforgettable childhood and coming of age within a large and loving family in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; of the contradictions between private life and public life in a country plagued by political upheaval; of her high school years in Vienna facing the trials of adolescence far from her family; of her homecoming–both sweet and terrible; and, finally, of her self-imposed exile from her beloved homeland. It is the chronicle of a girlhood and adolescence at once outrageous and familiar, a young life entwined with the history of her country yet filled with the universal trials and joys of growing up.

Edgy, searingly observant, and candid, often heartbreaking but threaded throughout with raw humor and hard-earned wisdom–Persepolis is a stunning work from one of the most highly regarded, singularly talented graphic artists at work today. 

I’m a fan of banned books, and I picked up The Complete Persepolis specifically because it was challenged then banned from the middle school curriculum in Chicago Public School system early in 2013. From everything I read, high school teachers were still allowed to teach it. As the book lay on my kitchen counter, with crisp corners and an uncracked spine, I thought, I can understand parents of seventh graders wanting to reassurance about the contents of a heavy book before their kids read it, but by high school, kids need to know this stuff. Whatever “this stuff” was, I didn’t precisely know. I hadn’t read the book yet.

Now that I have, I can say the thing that struck me most is that Satrapi is about my age. What does that mean, exactly?

It means that Satrapi begins her story with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, when she was ten years old. When I was ten years old, my biggest worry was being called four-eyes by the boys in class because of my new, chosen-by-mom glasses.

It means that in 1984, when I was fourteen and swooning over the members of Duran Duran, Satrapi was fending for herself in an Austrian Catholic boarding school. And a few years later, at sixteen and seventeen–while I was whining about having to read The Odyssey in verse and writing poetry instead of paying attention during AP American History–Satrapi was devouring essays by Freud, probably in German.

Most of all, it means that there was barely a two-page spread in Persepolis that didn’t teach me something–and that in spite of the semester of Middle Eastern history I opted for in college, I know next to nothing. How does something like that happen? I’m still flipping back and forth in the book and Googling events and places to make sure I have the timeline straight for the fifteen years Satrapi chronicles.

I’m not sure if I should feel ashamed of or grateful for my sheltered upbringing. What I am sure about is that most seventh grade kids can handle the contents of Persepolis–especially when read in the classroom, where it would be accompanied by teacher-guided activities and discussions. I think it’s especially pertinent now, as domestic terrorism grows, encouraged by many in our own government. I see no reason why our middle school students shouldn’t read it, discuss it, and let it seep into their psyches. Are violence and torture depicted? Yes. Much more than violence, though, Satrapi depicts her struggle to understand, belong, and thrive on her own terms. What teenager can’t identify with those desires? I’ll encourage my daughters to read it this summer.

What about you? What were you doing when you were ten? Fourteen? Seventeen? And what do you not know?


For June 28: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Beautiful Books: Small as an Elephant

Small as an Elephant
by Jennifer Richard Jacobson

From the back cover: Jack’s mom is gone. When eleven-year-old Jack Martel wakes up on the first morning of a camping trip with his mom in Acadia National Park, he is all alone. It’s not the first time Jack’s mom has disappeared, and Jack knows that it’s up to him to find her before someone figures out what’s happened and separates them forever. But finding his mom in the state of Maine isn’t the same as finding her in their neighborhood back in Boston. While Jack searches the places they’d planned to visit with nothing but a small plastic elephant to keep him company, a dark thought plagues him: once he finds his mom, will he be able to forgive her?

How do you define what makes a good mother? Does a good mother know what her child loves? Does a good mother have inside jokes with her kids? Share her own passions with them? Try to protect them from those she feels mean harm? Does a good mother make mistakes?

Of course they do.

By most definitions, a woman who abandons her child would not be a good mother, but Jack Martel would disagree with you, and he would be right.

It’s never explicitly stated in Small as an Elephant, but an adult reader will understand Jack’s mother has manic-depression, and that she doesn’t take her medication properly. But she’s still a good mother, and Jack knows this. As he searches for her in Maine, then as he tries to make his way back home to Boston, he spends a lot of time alone with his thoughts and memories. He wrestles with his current predicament and with forgiving her, but his abandonment does not exist in a vacuum—there is much more to his relationship with his mom than her illness and how it affects him.

He wants to forgive her and hold her accountable at the same time, and accepting that is a crucial part of his journey. It’s part of his mother’s journey, too—forgiveness. Trust. Admitting that we can be both weak and strong at the same time.

And that sometimes, the things that make us feel safe can be many little things that add up to one big thing: like elephants, humans care for one another. We take in those who have been abandoned or lost, so they are not alone any longer.


For June 14: The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I know I was supposed to review Challenger Deep this week, but my brother has been in hospice, and I honestly haven’t been able to concentrate on anything more than keeping my kids’ lives mostly sane and being there by phone for my parents. My brother passed away yesterday evening. So, this week, I’ve posted a recently-written review of a book my daughters’ book club read this year. I’ll get back on track shortly. 

Beautiful Books: Rishi and the Karmic Cat

Rishi and the Karmic Cat
Nandini Bajpai

From the back cover: Rishi and Karishma are living a routine life in the US with nothing more exciting to deal with than middle school until their cat starts talking. He reveals that they need to find the Jiva Sutra—the ancient Book of Life—before it falls into evil hands. Could they really be the chosen ones entrusted centuries ago with the book, born again to restore it for the benefit of all beings? Will the lizard-born Hiramani, an enemy from that past life, seize it before them and use its powerful life force for his own nefarious ends? 

 Teaming up with a host of wild creatures and the world’s oldest trees, Rishi and Karishma set off on a dangerous quest that takes them from America to India and Tibet. From the ruins of an ancient university in Nalanda, to the forests of Gir, and the Temple of the Saffron Cats in Tibet, the brother and sister must battle the evil Hiramani in their bid to save the Jiva Sutra and restore balance to the earth.

Full disclosure: I knew I would love this book because I first read the opening chapters when Nandini Bajpai and I were in a critique group together, and I loved them then.

As a contemporary fantasy, this book is different from anything else I’ve read so far this year, and it was a welcome break from weighty issues. But that doesn’t mean Rishi and the Karmic Cat is fluff—far from it. As I already know from reading Red Turban, White Horse, Bajpai has a knack for tucking serious subjects and journeys discreetly within light-hearted, adventurous stories.

I know—what’s light-hearted about needing to save the Book of Life from an evil prince seeking to turn the book’s power toward destruction? It’s Bajpai’s writing. Her books are imbued with a smart, appropriately sprinkled humor that comes through in every character, but never feels authorial.

The relationship between Rishi and his sister feels spot-on: at two years apart in age, they mess with each other, but their disagreements are far from mean-spirited. Throughout the story, they support one another and work together to accomplish their mission.

What is mean-spirited (expectedly so) is Hiramani, the prince reborn into iguana form. He’s actually kind-of funny at times—in a crotchety, you-kids-get-off-my-lawn manner. Trapped as an iguana, his magic is selfish, destructive, and more powerful than that of the jiva masters—whose magic is based in compassion and humility, and feels primarily defensive.

Rishi is creative and quick-witted, though he often speaks and acts without thinking (like me, I’ll admit), and ends up appropriately rewarded for his impulsiveness. He’s uncertain about his own abilities, but his heart is open and he’s willing to put himself in danger to protect others from harm. It’s that willingness to run into the fire, combined with his ingenuity, that enable Rishi to find the treasured items needed to restore the Jiva Sutra, outwit Hiramani’s attempts to find them, and hold his own in their final confrontation.

Rishi and Karishma, as they work with their cat Kesar (a jiva master) and two more masters to find and restore the Jiva Sutra, are confronted with the reality of our ailing planet and the painful fact that there is no overnight fix. They learn that even the little things we do make a difference, though they sometimes seem like nowhere near enough. What’s worse is to do nothing, and to dismiss the impact of an individual.

Final note, for anyone wondering why a jiva master would be reborn as a cat: yes, you’ll find out.


For May 31: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Beautiful Books – The House on Mango Street

The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros

From the back cover: Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous, The House on Mango Street tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, whose neighborhood is one of harsh realities and harsh beauty. Esperanza doesn’t want to belong—not to her rundown neighborhood, and not to the low expectations the world has for her. Esperanza’s story is that of a young girl coming into her power, and inventing for herself what she will become.

I first read The House on Mango Street in college—it was one of the novels I carted with me every time I moved (which in my 20s was frequently—though it was usually a choice rather than a necessity). I also taught it to my high school freshman during my brief time as a teacher in California. I absolutely love this novel! I love the poetry and the honesty of Esperanza’s voice, and I don’t want to imagine a world where this novel doesn’t exist. I reread the copy I’ve carried around since college, which is all highlighted up and says TEACHER’S COPY on the edges of the pages when you hold the book closed tight. The glue is failing. But I could be persuaded to let my daughters borrow it.

Because of the vignetted structure of The House on Mango Street, I’m going to write this post differently: I’ll talk about some of the vignettes that stuck with me on this reread.

“My Name”
Esperanza was named for her great-grandma, who was a “wild horse of a woman” (p. 11) and I think, even though she was forced into a role she didn’t choose, her great-grandma WAS a strong woman—because it takes immense strength to survive, conquered. I wonder if she gave up hope, or if she tucked it away, deep into her DNA, to pass it along to someone (Esperanza) who had a better chance than she did.

My relationship with my own name is ambivalent. Sometimes, I think it ugly and masculine. Other times I hate that the first Wendy was forced to become a mother-figure to her siblings and Peter and the Lost Boys—and how it felt when I went through a similar situation. Then I remember what a strong young woman Wendy is, and how she chooses the hard things and does everything she can to protect those she loves, and I realize: my name is perfect.

“Gil’s Furniture Bought & Sold”
“I bought the Statue of Liberty for a dime.” (p. 20) I think this really happens. I suspect Esperanza took care of hers, but in the grownup world, the people who buy our liberty don’t care for it—it’s just something they want to have and control. They treat it like they found it in a junk shop, like it’s worth less than a dime.

“Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark”
This vignette reminds me of when I was 13, and my dad’s mother died. My mom was already in Pennsylvania, where she’d been caring for my grandmother. My dad woke me up early so I could help him pack. We made pb&j sandwiches and I helped get my sister & brother ready. I remember pouring him coffee as he drove us up the dark highway; it was the only thing I could do. I didn’t think it was enough.

“Four Trees”
I love the idea of trees growing angrily, as if to spite the world of concrete around them. I’m glad they’re there for Esperanza when she needs reassurance that she can survive, too—and even flourish.

“There is no one to lend you her hairbrush.” (p. 82) This sentence made me cry. Who doesn’t want—need—one person they know they can count on to understand and support them? Sally reminds me of a girl named Rosemary. She was in the eighth grade and we rode the same bus to middle school. Like Sally, her dad told her what she could and could not do or wear. Rosemary used to put her makeup on during the ride to school every day, and take it off on the way home. Watching her do that everyday (and sometimes holding her mirror for her) helped me realize I, too, could be two people if I had to be.

Final Thoughts
It’s difficult to reject what everyone else wants for you; it feels selfish, arrogant, and daunting. But if we don’t go after what we want, no one will hand it to us. And honestly, if someone did hand it to us, we wouldn’t want it, anymore—because it’s not only about the goal.

It’s about knowing you got there yourself. It’s about truth, honesty, and brazenness. It’s about speaking up—both for ourselves and those who can’t speak for themselves—and telling the stories of those who don’t even know they have a story to tell.


For May 17: Rishi and the Karmic Cat by Nandini Bajpai