You know how I have those reviews where I say, stop reading this and just go get the book? This is one of them. Picture Us in the Light is one of the best books I’ve read in the last month – it is emotional, moving, and such a phenomenal source of representation. Go now.
Danny has been an artist for as long as he can remember and it seems his path is set, with a scholarship to RISD and his family’s blessing to pursue the career he’s always dreamed of. Still, contemplating a future without his best friend, Harry Wong, by his side makes Danny feel a panic he can barely put into words. Harry and Danny’s lives are deeply intertwined and as they approach the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that shook their friend group to its core, Danny can’t stop asking himself if Harry is truly in love with his girlfriend, Regina Chan.
When Danny digs deeper into his parents’ past, he uncovers a secret that disturbs the foundations of his family history and the carefully constructed facade his parents have maintained begins to crumble. With everything he loves in danger of being stripped away, Danny must face the ghosts of the past in order to build a future that belongs to him.
This book has taken all words away from me. I finished it sobbing and days later I don’t think I can even do justice to the beauty of this book. After this book I needed the biggest of all hugs. Picture Us in the Light is wonderful. It has skyrocketed into my top contemporaries. It tackles hard topics: suicide, adoption, family, panic attacks, immigration, and more. But it handles each of them so tenderly, so exquisitely.
The Hard Hitting Topics
As someone who was adopted, seeing this book makes my heart skip a beat. I would never spoil any plot moment for you, so I will just say that as a Chinese American growing up in a basically almost all white school and also being adopted, this book touched my heart in more ways than one.
The ways Danny deals with the racism and the feeling of being ‘other’ were spot on. While I never experienced the comments he does to my face, I was aware growing up being the other, the non-norm, the one who was different. The topic of suicide is also dealt with pretty extensively in a way that was really nuanced – because we kind of get to see the events leading up to it and the aftermath. Danny’s mom suffers panic attacks, and this isn’t just a ‘token’ trait, she suffers from them numerous times and it becomes part of their family fabric.
At the same time, this book lets us see so many different sides of everyone around Danny – his best friend Harry who doesn’t know what to do next, his best friend Regina who is driven by ambition, his mom who suffers from panic attacks, and his dad who is a passionate scientist. Each one of them felt three dimensional. I could go on and on about each of them.
I saw myself in a part of each of them. Harry’s questions about what next mirrored some of my own thoughts I have when I cannot sleep. Reigna’s ambition reflected my own – even to get to where I am for this blog. I admired Danny’s dad’s passion for his science and his work, while I loved his mom’s love for her garden. Each of them were made up of moments – times when we were able to see who they were beneath their role.
(Also fun fact, I was born in the same region as where Danny’s parents met!)
This is one of the best books for well rounded characters I’ve read in YA for a while. Gilbert masters emotions. Gilbert understands that it’s not about directing them, but about putting them on the page for them to breath, to take on a life of their own.
He is just such a precious character. I want to protect him when he makes mistakes, relish in his success, and support him in between. Danny touched my heart in the way he felt the absent presence of his family member, the crushing responsibility to his parents, and the frequent comments of “I’m lucky” to rationale why he should be grateful or happier. It’s these ways we feel sadness and guilt, even if we are lucky. And those moments where we are consumed with feeling like we should be happy and not sad – the cycle of guilt over not being happy – when we chase happiness like a dog chases its tail. I saw so much of my younger self, and even my current self in his thoughts. One review, two reviews, five hundred reviews, are not enough to describe why I loved Danny so dearly for example why his Mr. X (darkest thoughts) didn’t make me cringe with its relatability.
This story picks you up and it lets you follow Danny through this challenging time in his life. We witness his memories and there are so many different plot tendrils that come together – his future, his family problems, the mistakes he’s made – that it feels comprehensive. This is Danny. GIlbert sprinkles these bread crumbs of mystery throughout this story down this path of memories. And yet at the end, it’s so clear how Gilbert has woven us into this story. This is a story about those little choices we make that chip away from different futures and lives like tossing pebbles that accumulate and change the face of a mountain. Gilbert balances and intertwines these moments, these memories, all the little touches together in a truly spectacular and masterful way.
I’ve ranted, gushed, and raved about this book this entire review. If you think I’m worth anything as a reviewer, please go check out this book on Goodreads. While Picture Us in the Light is hard hitting, dealing with emotional issues, it is also written with extreme care. Not only with sensitivity, but beautifully flowing quotes, characters you can see yourself in, and a storyline that is poignant. The sentences are beautiful and raw, evoking emotion in their power and simplicity, like spelling out things you already knew in your heart to be true. There are so many moments where we have to realize that our fears are like bigger and scarier than they are – taking on an abstract light like flickering shadows on the wall.