Social media is a wild ride. Stories abound about connections made, connections lost, and connections we wish would get lost. Once the conversation about social media starts, it doesn’t take long for the topics of cyberbullying, loneliness, detachment, and trolling to rear their heads. In his debut young adult novel, Don’t Read the Comments, author Eric Smith serves up all these issues—the good, the bad, and the ugly—on a silver platter for us to consider.
Divya Sharma (screen name D1V) reigns supreme in the virtual world of this year’s hottest online game, Reclaim the Sun, until a group of online trolls attempt to unseat her from her star status. The stakes of the story climb higher as we learn that her celebrity isn’t a personal ego trip; it’s the engine that drives sponsorship dollars to help her single mother pay their bills. For online gamers, this book hits close to home, and presents their greatest dream and worst nightmare wrapped into one story arc along with an intense look at the devastating personal impact of racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity. For people who aren’t familiar with online gaming, Divya’s story is a heart-wrenching scenario of a daughter willing to risk everything to help her mother who is her everything.
Much of the story focuses on Divya’s online travels with another online gamer, Aaron Jericho, as the trolling skyrockets out-of-control threatening everything, online and off, that Divya and her producer and best friend, Rebekah, have built. Aaron’s online admiration of Divya translates into a friendship and romance IRL. It’s these bittersweet moments, the silver linings that can only be realized through painful growth that precipitates drastic change, that keep readers turning the pages of Smith’s book, wanting to know how, when, and to what end Divya’s online and offline lives will collide. After the last page, we’re left wondering if there truly is or ever could be any separation at all between the world (or in Divya’s case, worlds) on screen and the material world. Or, is that separation a facade in and of itself.
I read Smith’s book in November 2019, and now in January 2020 I’m still thinking of Divya. I’m hoping that her life is working out exactly as she wanted. I’m wondering how things have evolved with Aaron and how her mom is doing with her new lease on life that Divya helped to create. I’m curious if she’s gaming, in the worlds of Reclaim the Sun or otherwise. Without me even realizing it, Divya became as real to me in the pages of Smith’s book as anyone I know. That’s the lesson of Divya’s journey for all of us—we don’t have an online life and real life. It’s all real. It’s all one life, no matter where we live it. And it all matters.
Don’t Read the Comments is published by Inkyard Press. It’s available on Amazon and Indiebound. You can follow Smith’s journey as an author and literary agent through his delightful Twitter feed @ericsmithrocks.