When Family Stories Resonate Far Beyond: Daniel Nayeri Talks About His Printz Award Win

Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story) won the 2021 Printz Award, rewarding and bringing great joy to a new publisher and the author, who used the spotlight to try to help others.

Daniel Nayeri 
©Reams Photography

Nearly eight hours after the virtual Youth Media Awards ceremony announced his novel Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story) won the 2021 Printz Award, author Daniel Nayeri's thoughts had not settled down. He knew about his win for a week, but the public reveal blew up his phone and created a new rush of joy.

Conversation raced from the reason for champagne to failed dad jokes—"I'm the Printz of Persia," he told his eight-year-old son, who didn't understand the video game reference ruining the pun—to beauty and art, charity and survival, his mom, his publisher, and the Printz. And many apologies for his frenetic pace and being mentally all over the place. 

His award-winning book, on the other hand, is laser-focused on a specific child in a specific time. It was one of the reasons he wasn't sure it would resonate outward.

"It’s a book that is clearly holding a very narrow lens in the mind of a very particular 12-year-old," he said of the novel could be described as the history of his family. "In that sense, I wanted the universality to come out of the specificity, but sometimes it’s just too specific. Sometimes, people are just like, 'Yeah, that is a very particular flavor.' It is the anise/cilantro of books."

Would others enjoy the flavor, connect with the characters and story and, as he tweeted on Monday, find it useful "in a way that beautiful stories can be useful, to help us understand reality"?

That, he didn't know. There was only one certainty.

"I knew my mom would like it," Nayeri said. "That's what I knew for a fact. Beyond that, there's so many other variables that go into if a book gets seen that I tried really hard not to think about it."

He has his answer now. His book was seen, and it resonated. The Printz Award was not just a reason for celebration for Nayeri and his family but for Levine Querido, an independent publisher looking to "build a platform for previously underrepresented voices." It launched in 2020 with Everything Sad is Untrue as its first title.

"How few instances, how few chances are there to be the first of a list?" said Nayeri. "That seat is an honor seat."

To be the first of a list and win a major award?

"There are famous, legendary stories about imprints that begin with an award right out of the gate, it's that thing you always want," said Nayeri, who is the publisher of his own imprint, OddDot Books, and knows exactly how difficult a task that would be. "I was deathly afraid I was going to let them down. My adult mind does not actually believe that these people would be disappointed in me in some way, but, boy, I really wanted to be part of that story."

On Monday he became one of those legendary publishing stories, but wasn't the only Levine Querido author to earn recognition. Apple: Skin to the Core by Eric Gansworth was a Printz Honor title. Gansworth is the first Indigneous author to win a Printz honor. And Lupe Wong Won't Dance by Donna Barba Higuera was a Pura Belpré Children’s Author Honor Book. 

In his success, Nayeri wanted to make the most of this moment and attention. In a Twitter thread, he wrote, "I figure this is my best week of sales, and an author makes about a dollar per book. So what if we tracked the Bookscan sales for this entire week?

"For every book you buy this week, I'll give my dollar to @Heifer a nonprofit that fights global hunger by giving livestock so that impoverished families can create sustainable livelihoods for themselves."

Heifer International gives the equivalent of a small business to a family, Nayeri said, changing their future.

"In my own small way, I got to have 15 seconds and, to me, art is deeply, deeply important, but there are things I would categorize as necessary before we can live in a world that enjoys art,"  he said. "We’ve all heard the saying, 'Art makes life worth living.' That’s true, but first you have to preserve life."

If there was a surprise among the BIg Three, it might have been this one. Many saw Everything Sad is Untrue as more befitting the Newbery. SLJ reviewed Nayeri's book as a middle grade title, putting the age range at grades 4-8. 

For what it's worth, Nayeri rejects age range as a concept, believing it should serve as a minimum for age-appropriate material, not a declaration of a maximum age.

"I don't see why picture books wouldn't be adult reading material," he said. "And I don't see why middle grade wouldn't be YA or even adult."

In recent years, the award has skewed toward titles for older readers but the Printz committee liked that Nayeri's book is accessible to a broader group of readers.

"We saw it as readable from middle school to adults, which was part of the appeal," Printz committee chair Ellen Spring said in an email. "We felt it was an excellent meeting of middle school with Scheherazade tales where one only wants to get out alive! The personality of Daniel Nayeri shone through with readers learning of his family, early life in Iran and the food, which sounded fantastic! It was an autobiographical novel filled with memory and anecdote. It was a unique refugee story, and there was poop!"

Nayeri celebrated the Printz win with a bottle of champagne that was, he mused, the first he could remember specifically meant for him.

"I've never been the subject of champagne before," he said.

He decided to open it like he had seen done by Super Bowl winners—shaking the bottle before launching the cork and setting off a celebratory spray. He soon learned what viewers never see in those locker room scenes.

"It takes a minute to clean up all that joy," he said, laughing. "I sort of showered in it. It was wonderful."

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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