2021 Newbery Buzz #4: Everything Sad Is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

We’ve been scanning the starred review lists and listening in on the chatter to tell you about the likely Newbery contenders for this year. So far we’ve pondered King and the Dragonflies, Chirp, The List of Things That Will Not Change, and Skunk & Badger. For today . . .

Janie: For our fourth Newbery Buzz talk, Hayley and I are tackling Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri. I’ll lay my cards out up front: I found this book amazing, in theme, structure, literary quality, and characterization (see my review). But it’s definitely not conventional. Hayley, could you give us a summary of the plot?

Hayley:  Absolutely.  This is a unique book, both middle-grade and also a literary memoir.  Nayeri, an Iranian refugee, speaks directly to the readers, presenting his story in the form of a series of oral reports presented throughout the school year to his 7th grade class in Edmond, Oklahoma.  Like a mosaic, Nayeri’s story is revealed in bits and pieces rather than a chronological narrative.  Philosophical musings are interposed with pieces of Iranian mythology and history, Nayeri’s oral family history, and his personal experiences.  

He couches all of this in interlayered myths, legends, and stories.  For instance he will introduce three ideas:    

“The first is the myth of Khosrou and Shirin. The second is the legend of Aziz and her husbands. The third is the history of how I broke my thumb at my mom’s church.”

And yet, he understands that this form of storytelling is not always acceptable to listeners —pragmatic listeners want something tangible.   

“When I tell people my stories, about the hero Rostam or the size of pomegranates from the orchards on my Baba Haji’s land, the villages in stone pillars, Orich candy bars, or anything that happened to me, they never believe me. There is no evidence in their library.”

His is a story of patchwork refugee memories and Persian rugs, the recalled opulence of a past life, and the tumble of events as his mother converts to Christianity and flees Iran to eventually arrive in America.

Janie, as I think back over the story and look at my highlighted notes, it’s amazing how much ground this book covers.  It is not a typical novel by any means, and it’s hard to compare it to other books.  As I think back, I’m reminded of snatches of New Kid’s humor and Nowhere Boy‘s contemporary relevance.  I think each book also has a strong influence of authors sharing their personal experience.             

Speaking of New Kid, it won the Newbery last year, do you think Everything Sad is Untrue has a chance this year? 

Janie: That’s a very interesting question. I think a Newbery score is a long shot, for several reasons. One, the book is difficult to classify: part nonfiction memoir, part imaginative memoir, part legend/myth. It’s unusually literary for a middle-grade (or early YA): the meandering sentences, word choice, and non-chronological structure may be new to a lot of young readers. Also, it’s unique in its unabashedly Christian main character (Daniel insists that the hero of the story is not himself, but his mother). Not typical Newbery material! Especially this year when everyone is so focused on politics and social issues.

The committee may surprise me, though. They may be blown away by the brilliance; who knows? The word “brilliance” is so overused it’s lost some of its sparkle. But I think that’s the best way to describe the way Nayeri combines fantasy and myth with hard-edged snapshots of actual life to tell his story. When I first started reading it, I was impressed, but also a little put off. I wondered if the typical 12-year-old would be able to grasp the narrative and hang on for the whole ride. How would you “sell” this to a middle-schooler, Hayley? Especially one who prefers, or has only been exposed to, linear narratives?

Hayley: Good question. I think I’d take the direct approach: “Look, this book is amazing.  It will help you understand what life looks like to someone who arrives in America as a refugee, it will introduce you to Persian myths and legends.  It’s not just sad, it’s funny, too, and hopeful.  But it’s not normal and the way it’s told is kind of like a fill-in-by-number picture . . . You will have to be patient with it BUT I think you will like it and will find it rewarding.  I’ve read hundreds of middle-grade books in the past years, and this one is special.”

Would you add anything to that sell, Janie?

Janie: That about covers it. I would just emphasize that Daniel has an important story to tell and we have to let him tell it his own way. Also, think about the way we live in linear time, but experience life through memory, history, and legend. The past informs the present, and the way we recall it isn’t linear.   

Hayley: Something that impressed me was how intensely Christian and hopeful this book was —I think that counterbalances the sadness and gritty realism of the story, aided by the literary structure.

Janie, I was reading another book today (Leaving Lymon) that also has a lot of sadness, as well as an angry stepfather.  I’m sure you can name other middle-grade novels with similar themes, yet Nayeri’s book is different in so many ways, including the fact that it’s mostly true —and that makes it uniquely powerful. The title though —Everything Sad is Untrue (a True Story), I have to be honest, I both love it —it seems perfect for the book— but I also find it bewildering.  How do you understand it?  

Janie: It might be one of those riddles every reader has to puzzle out for himself! Here’s how I see it:

From the very first page, truth vs. lies is a major theme. “All Persians are liars and lying is a sin . . . My mom says it’s true but only because everyone has sinned and need God to save them.” When asked to explain why she gave up a secure home, position, and wealth to embrace Christianity, she answers simply that it’s true. Not that it gives her peace or community—not that it benefits her at all necessarily, but because the story is too enormous and compelling to ignore. And it demands everything, but also supplies everything. We should note that there are some difficult subjects addressed here: bullying, deprivation, hunger, and and spousal abuse. Sensitive readers may be advised to wait a few years before picking up the book. But temporary sorrow is the lie; eternal joy is the reality. That’s why Everything Sad Is (ultimately) untrue.

Next up: Betsy and Janie will be puzzling over Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You.
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