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Everything Sad Is Untrue: (a true story)

Daniel Nayeri
Published by Levine Querido in 2020

In my son’s room, on top of the dresser that’s as messy as most teenagers seem to like, is a book filled with steaming saffron rice, candy bars, macaroni and cheese, and the story of Khosrou Nayeri. While reading Everything That’s Sad is Untrue aloud together each night, the scents and sounds of this book opened us up to the miracles that took place in order for Khosrou, his mother, and his sister to journey to the United States.

“Miracle,” in this instance, is no perfect journey or tidy route in any way. God did not make a clear highway paved with gold to the United States. Instead, as Khosrou (also referred to as Daniel) says in the novel about those seeking asylum in the USA, “When the immigrants came to America, they thought the streets would be paved with gold. But when they got here, they realized three things: 1) the streets were not paved with gold; 2) the streets were not paved at all; 3) they were the ones expected to do the paving.” The miracle of arriving in the United States for this family, torn apart because of Khosrou’s sister’s mysterious conversion to Christianity, was a series of revelatory gifts of the Holy Spirit. 

It took a bit of time to help my son realize that the book was about a boy recalling stories aloud in his Oklahoma classroom. The first story is about the family’s perilous journey from Iran to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to escape death because of their conversion, then to a refugee camp in Italy, and finally to the United States. Without explanation but, instead, with story after poignant story, we begin to understand the patchwork of a family fleeing their home for unknown safety. Nayeri often repeats, “A patchwork story is the shame of a refugee.” Everything Sad is Untrue, although classified as a novel, is really a memoir recalling Nayeri’s own life through the stories he tells to his classroom in Oklahoma–stories the author knows well, having lived them.

What I didn’t need to explain to my son was that all middle schools are filled with hormonal kids, who in this book are called “the Jennifers” and who never seem to have the room within themselves for empathy. My son knows all too well how cruel kids can be toward those they don’t understand, even when he isn’t the one who eats his lunches alone because they smell differently than peanut butter sandwiches. Is it too much to ask our kids, and ourselves, to see new kids at school not as strangers but as complex humans with much more to teach us than we could ever teach them?

How can just one young adult novel tell so many tales about love, loss, crisis, trauma, and hope without being overwhelming? Nayeri humorously weaves observations that stay alive long after reading the book, making me ask myself of everyone I pass on the street or sit next to in the church pew: What have you experienced today, this week, or this year that I could never know or understand? In that light, Nayeri challenges readers of all ages to consider kindness as a first response to others:

Imagine how much you’ve got compared to all the kids in the world getting blown up or starved, and the good you could do if you spent half a second thinking about it. 

Suddenly evil isn’t punching people or even hating them. 

Suddenly it’s all the stuff you’ve left undone. 

All the kindness you could’ve given. 

All the excuses you gave instead.

Imagine that for a minute. 

Imagine what it means.

For the years between read-aloud chapter books and thick adult fiction, I recommend this book as one that parents, grandparents, or guardians can read aloud to their mature young adults or dig into themselves on a rainy spring day. It is equal parts immigration story, American story, and teenagers-on-the-margins story. I’m often reminded that the best we can offer each other is a cure for loneliness (found in story!) and empathy, which are all found on the pages of Daniel Nayeri’s glowing novel. 

 

Kate Bolt

Kate Bolt lives in Holland, Michigan where she is heavily involved in many volunteer efforts including her work on the board of directors for the Holland Public Schools’ Educational Foundation, Western Theological Seminary and in many other ways at Third Reformed Church. A graduate of Anderson University, Kate’s social work degree prepared, and influenced, her work as a Young Life Church Partner and on Young Life committees both in Holland (the Netherlands) and in Holland, Michigan. Kate is the owner of Living Lark, a food and lifestyle company promoting events (focusing on non-profit events that are close to Kate’s heart) in the West Michigan area by serving original and creative recipes. Mother to Jack, Willem, and Vivian, and married to Dan, Kate enjoys traveling, cooking, paddle-boarding, and sitting on her porch while reading as many books as possible during the summer.

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