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On Contradictions and Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad is Untrue (a True Story)

A basic tautology in modern logic (originally from Aristotle's Metaphysics) is the Law of Contradiction (or, confusedly, the Law of Non-Contradiction). This law holds that a thing (A) cannot be both A and not-A. A rock cannot be both a rock and not a rock. A dog cannot be both a dog and not a dog. Simple.

The problem is it's not always true, not, in fact, a tautology. Thanks to the work of Einstein and other scientists, this former truth has been called into question. Quantum Mechanics now relies upon what is known as the "Wave-Particle Duality," a truth that explains how light can be both a wave and a particle, depending on the circumstances. Einstein, explaining the development, wrote:

We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do.

In Everything Sad is Untrue (a True Story), Daniel Nayeri faces this new kind of difficulty, weaving contradictory pictures of reality, and in the process, he has offered the world something phenomenal, as miraculous as light, as complicated as love.

The book opens with Daniel (Khosrou) explaining that "All Persians are liars and lying is a sin." Daniel is 12, a refugee forced to flee Iran after his mother converted to Christianity and a fatwa was placed on her head. We meet Daniel in Oklahoma, in Mrs Miller's 5th-grade class, as he attempts to tell his story, to tell it true, to be honest even in the face of his patchwork memory. He says,

If you catch me, I will say what they say in the 1,001 Nights. "Let me go, and I will tell you a tale passing strange."
That's how they all begin.
With a promise. 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.

Like Scheherazade, Daniel knows that story has power: the power to save, the power to heal, the power to reveal. But stories can also conceal. They can sow doubt. They can be both true and not-true at the same time. Young Daniel knows this. So does author Daniel Nayeri, who even in the title, acknowledges that this is a true story, his true story, even as it is also a work of fiction.

Everything Sad is Untrue defies classification in this way. It also raises questions regarding audience: Is this a book for the middle grades reader like young Daniel? Or for a more mature teen reader? What about all the adults who are singing its praises? Are they this book's intended audience? I would answer Yes to all. It is a brilliant, engaging, heart-warming and heart-breaking work, open to all, unafraid to stand before you, as Daniel does, and dismiss the quick version of the story:

Let's agree to have a complicated conversation. If you give me your attention --- I know it's valuable --- I promise I won't waste it with some "poor me" tale of immigrant woe.

The truth is there is plenty of woe in this story. The chaos of fleeing Iran, the shock of being separated from his father, the despair of the refugee camp, the terror of abuse even after landing "safely" in Oklahoma: Daniel's story is full of terrible things. But, somehow, it is also saturated with joy, diffused with hope, ringing with love.

Aristotelian logic relies on the either/or binary. One step beyond that is both/and thinking, which transcends the restrictive nature of binary logic and begins to point to the unnamable. Nayeri knows recognizes this transcendence, sees it in the ferocity of his mother's faith, her irrational belief in Jesus that makes her the unstoppable force that she is. It is complicated. And in the midst of this complicated story, Daniel asks his reader:

Would you rather a god who listens or a god who speaks?

Seeming to establish an either/or binary, he goes on to explain the different ways you can see these two possible gods before offering the following, almost an aside:

Oh, and in case it wasn't obvious, the answer is both.
God should be both.
If a god isn't, that is no God.

Daniel's voice is full of this kind of confidence, a bedrock feeling underneath the uncertainty of youth. Whether it's the interruptions of his classmates, the poop stories, or the joy of discovering Pringles, Daniel is always a 12-year-old. He is a tween in Oklahoma, but he is also a trilingual Persian prince, someone who has dined with royalty and hidden from those who almost certainly would have him killed. He has experienced things his readers have not, but mostly, he's just like them: a boy hoping for a friend, sharing his story in love, knowing that love is at the center of every story:

Reading is the act of listening and speaking at the same time, with someone you've never met, but love. Even if you hate them, it's a loving thing to do.

It's a both/and truth, and it transcends. You could even argue it goes a step further, extending the logic of this love like the Jaina seven-valued logic, which insists that no one statement, no single version of the story, can hold the full truth. This complicated logic attempts to hold the contradictions loosely, focusing instead on the ways a thing can be and also not be and be indescribable.

Nayeri knows that his story is just one version, colored by his perspective, defined by the faith of his mother, flawed as memory must always be. Despite that knowledge, Nayeri understands, as Einstein explained: no perspective alone can explain the phenomena of love.

Only together, they do.

And the result is indescribable.


The 2021 Newbery Medal selection committee spends the whole year considering titles. As always, I will be reading and reviewing along with the committee, keeping one eye on today's young readers and the other eye on each book's prospects. After each review, I'll offer my one-sentence take (OST) on medal-worthiness.

OST: Fully worthy and headed into next weekend's discussion loaded with praise, this title will be at the top of everyone's lists, its primary obstacle being that indefinable quality that may make some question its age-appropriateness.

Previous titles under consideration:


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