“It takes such a brief time to destroy someone’s life and forget that you ever did it. But rebuilding a life—that’s different. That takes forever.”
Winter Halperin has always been good with words—something that served her well as a National Spelling Bee champion a few years ago.
Now, after thoughtlessly sharing one insensitive comment online, words (and the entirety of the internet) have turned against Winter.She is stripped of her Spelling Bee title, condemned by strangers, and loses her college acceptance.
Winter always thought she was a good person. She still does. But mounting evidence online suggests otherwise. So does the mounting panic Winter feels every time she looks herself up online. Because how can she stop looking when some new horror could be added at any moment?
As she grapples with the aftermath of The Incident Winter is forced to confront hard truths about her own bigotry and its role in what happened as well as the nature of public shaming in the internet age in If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say (2018) by Leila Sales.
Sales’ latest standalone novel is a timely, sometimes brutal contemporary novel. Winter is a white girl from a fairly well off family. Her comment–meant, she claims, as a fact-based joke on historical Bee winners–suggests that the latest winner of the National Spelling Bee (a twelve-year-old African American girl) can’t spell and is a surprising winner.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say starts with Winter posting that comment before bed and waking up to a nightmare of notifications, hateful messages, and other bad publicity as awareness of her comment grows and grows.
Although the novel is written in the first person Sales is careful to neither condone nor condemn Winter’s actions throughout. It’s up to readers to decide what punishment (or forgiveness) Winter may or may not deserve. When Winter develops crippling anxiety and panic attacks surrounding her online presence and what people are saying about her she enters a program to try and make amends for her actions and also to cope with the very public and very painful online shaming.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is very plot driven without being high action. The focus of the story is squarely on what Winter did and the aftermath. The contrast between Winter confronting her own internalized bigotry/racism while also being subjected to such intense online shaming is incredibly powerful and thought provoking.
Winter is not always a likable character. It’s easy to feel bad for her as she faces death threats, of course. But it’s also hard to understand her thoughtlessness or how she is more focused on how many likes her joke might receive than on how hurtful it could be. In other words, Winter is a lot like many people who are active on social media.
Winter’s character arc balances dealing with the fallout both internally as she confronts her own biases/bigotry that she hasn’t grappled with before with the very public shaming. Does Winter learn anything from The Incident? Maybe, probably. Is it enough? Readers will have to judge that on their own.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say is a timely novel that will start a lot of hard but necessary conversations.
Possible Pairings: Love, Hate, and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed, Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World by Ana Homayoun, All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, American Street by Ibi Zoboi