Last year, seventh graders read Neal Shusterman’s Bruiser as part of their coursework in English. The students enjoyed the book so much that they wrote letters to the author, beginning a conversation that culminated with Shusterman’s visit to campus yesterday.
The award-winning author, best known for his young-adult fiction, has published close to 50 book titles and a range of scripts for film and television. During his visit to campus, he talked with all of the students in Middle and Upper School, allowing the students to guide the conversation and ask him whatever they liked about his work or the writing process.
When asked which of his books he considers his favorite, Shusterman offered a complex answer, noting that he learned something from each and every book and that he became a better writer each time. "If you were to ask me the best book I have written, I would say it’s the next one," he said. "I am always trying to do something that is at the very edge of my ability. As soon as you think you are good enough, that’s when you start being a hack writer."
Among the titles he has published, however, Shusterman admits a special connection to Challenger Deep, which received the National Book Award in 2015. He came up with the title when his oldest son was studying oceans in the second grade. His son chose the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, for his project. The deepest point in the trench, nearly seven miles down, is called Challenger Deep. Shusterman loved the way "Challenger Deep" sounded, but he didn’t have a story to go along with it. Years later, his son began to show signs of mental illness. He told Shusterman that he felt like he was screaming at the top of his lungs at the bottom of the ocean where no one could hear him. At that moment, Shusterman knew the story he wanted to tell in Challenger Deep. It would be several more years, however, before he began writing. Only after his son was able to manage his illness and thrive, did Shusterman ask his permission to write a book about a teenage boy struggling with schizophrenia.
Although not all of Shusterman’s books begin with personal experience, every story has to have a personal hold on him before he will write it. As a high-school-aged writer, his chief interest was in telling "a really cool story." Now, he says a story must also be original, universal, and "screaming to be told."
In addition to speaking with students, Shusterman also conducted workshops with fifth- through eighth-grade students.