Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE (a true story) by Daniel Nayeri
In EVERYTHING SAD IS UNTRUE, twelve-year-old Daniel shares his own story, from his earliest memories as a three-year-old in Iran, to his current existence as “the refugee kid in the back of Mrs. Miller’s class.” While relating the twists and turns that eventually led his family to Oklahoma, he weaves in tales of his ancestors, myths, and imagined conversations, after a warning in the opening line that “all Persians are liars.”
While I think this book shines in all of the literary elements listed in the Newbery Terms and Criteria, I especially appreciate the author’s “interpretation of the theme or concept” and how tightly that is tied to the “appropriateness of style” he chooses. There are numerous themes within Daniel’s story, but it’s the exploration of what it means to be a refugee, an immigrant, and an outsider that seems central to everything. He states it on the first page:
If you listen, I’ll tell you a story. We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore. (1)
Just about everything that follows explores that theme in one way or another, from scenes of violence and cruelty to several discussions about toilets; from perilous journeys to the familiar frustrations of middle school social dynamics. By shifting from past to present to mythical and back again, Daniel gives us multiple examples of what it can mean to have to leave your home and then try to find a new one. It’s all highly specific to his own experiences, but much of it also resonates in more universal ways. He mixes humor into the details, and often sums it all up in surprising and powerful ways.
For example, he tells us about the elaborate frustrations of trying to obtain required documentation in Dubai (274-278).. The almost endless back and forth with rules and regulations is maddening, yet almost comical in the way he describes it. He concludes that passage by cutting to the heart of the matter, and at the same time linking it to the abuse he now faces daily as a middle schooler:
Here in Oklahoma, I understand why – why humans would sit behind a glass window and look in the faces of families running away from danger and dead sheep, and not feel anything.
They think we’re bad people who will come and take their stuff.
Like when I won the tetherball tournament at recess against Trevor and I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been there at all. (278)
Nayeri’s style is not conventional, especially for a children’s book, and certainly it will be too challenging for some readers. Experienced and curious readers at the middle school level are the intended audience, though, and for that group, I think this book achieves a level of “eminence and distinction” that we look for in the year’s “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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