Picture Us In the Light
by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Life in the Cheng household has always been quiet.
Danny has grown up much of his life in an affluent part of California, watching his parents work hard at their jobs to create an existence for him that is comfortable and secure. His walls are papered with his own drawings, the smells of home-cooked Asian food are constantly wafting up the stairs, and the garden out back is always bursting with bounty created by his mother’s own loving hands. Danny goes to a school in a good district, alongside politician’s children and other rich kids, but he has carved out a handsome niche in the delicate shell of the high school social scene.
When Danny receives his letter of acceptance to RISD – his top (and if he’s honest, his only) choice – he is filled with reverence and a bit embarrassed by his parent’s enthusiasm and pride. He’s always known he was meant to be an artist, but he’s never been able to pinpoint exactly where the flow comes from. Pictures funnel their way curiously through his head and down through his heart before spurring off into veins that push the creativity throughout him in totality – his very essence is that of artistry. But ever since he sent his portfolio off as part of his application to RISD, Danny has felt as if his urge and emotional connection to drawing has escaped him … and it’s worrisome. He can’t seem to make anything out of putting pen to paper, and the thought that his talent has grown dormant is terrifying.
There is something else bubbling beneath the surface. Something scratching incessantly at Danny’s idyllic life in California, like a wolf seeking sanctuary in a paradise of sheep. He can’t quite put his finger on it, but it’s seeping into everything … his relationships at school, his relationships with his parents. He’s having trouble sleeping, seeming to wake from a bad dream that he can’t remember having. It all began with that box in the hall closet, and Danny feels as it begins to blossom … there is something terribly wrong.
The box is full of strange things. Drawings. Stuffed animals. Keepsakes? But then what are the printouts about … the low-key Internet surveillance of a wealthy family that lives not too far from the Chengs. Who are these people, and what do they have to do with his parents? What’s the connection?
The problems Danny is having at home seem like nothing compared to the turmoil at school. With news of his scholarship to RISD laid bare, Danny is anxious about his complicated friendship with his best friend, Harry. The thought of being hundreds of miles away from one another’s doorsteps is daunting. Danny and Harry are bonded in ways that are difficult to explain to an outsider. Their loyalty runs deep. But for Danny, it’s more than that … there are real feelings involved, feelings that could never come to fruition – because Harry made a promise a year ago to his girlfriend, Regina, that he would never leave her side. The event that rocked their school a year ago has created binding ties the likes of which can only be formed through ultimate heartbreak and sorrow, and as the anniversary of the event creeps its way closer like a shadow, Danny struggles to find his place in the spaces between what is right and what is socially acceptable.
Danny knows his father has always harbored secrets, and that those secrets have led to a constant, dull ache that resides deep within his heart. Mr. Cheng is prone to bouts of depression, and when he loses his job at the science lab, he sinks in to one that Danny is worried may be as thick and dangerous as quicksand. With financial struggles looming on the horizon like an ominous thundercloud, his parents insist that the the move out of the house Danny calls home and into a tiny, cramped apartment miles away is for the best. But Danny knows there is something else going on, something to do with this mysterious family across town, and he’s determined to fight his parents’ bidding with everything he’s got. He can’t abandon his friends or his school now, not with everything that’s going on. Not when he has such precious little time left with them.
What Danny doesn’t realize is that there is a girl that grew up in that house across town. A girl with eyes the same shape as Danny’s and the same straight, black hair. There is a reason his parents have sacrificed everything to live in California, a reason why they fled their homeland, and it has everything to do with her. His parents have secrets that are so dark and so deep that the pain of keeping them has ripped their very souls in half, and when Danny learns the truth, he wonders how he can bring his family back into the light.
Picture Us In the Light is the newest novel by Kelly Loy Gilbert. A young adult author who burst upon the scene with Conviction, an authentic portrait of religion told from the perspective of a teenage boy, Gilbert has not disappointed in her sophomoric literary work. In Picture Us, Gilbert draws a series of very intense alliances while tackling real life issues. In addition to showing the rawness of reality for both the Cheng parents and for their naive son Danny, Gilbert draws upon the intricacies of teenage spirits and their coping mechanisms.
I was drawn in first by the voice of Danny Cheng. He’s absolutely lived a sheltered life, and it shows. He lacks maturity (which is appropriate for his age, and even more acute due to his parent’s over-protectiveness) and is struggling to find his place in the world; both of which are authentically portrayed by his narrative. Danny’s emotions surrounding the question of his sexuality is believable and impactful, and I applaud the author for taking on an issue that is so relevant to this generation and treating it with such beauty. Danny’s sexual preference is never the highlighted subject, but the feelings he has for his best friend are compelling. (Don’t get me started on that ending, because I’ll be crying all over again.)
The respect Danny is expected to give to his parents (no matter their intentions, actions, or his lack of understanding) is believable and rings true in regards to the culture. It is a complicated and complex relationship between parent and child, and as the story began to unfold and we learned why it has been taken to such an elevated height, I was again in awe of the delicate (but always honest) way Gilbert tackled it.
One of the issues dealt with in this novel is teen suicide and its aftermath, so please be aware of any triggers. So much of it rang true, and I was again appreciative that Gilbert did not shy away from the messiness of the teenage mind, nor was anything glorified. The difficult way in which our teenagers are growing up can be very difficult for the adults and parents in their lives to accept at times, but there is in fact a complete culture that these kids live in that must be seen for what it is. Please be aware that while the book does not focus solely on suicide, it does play an important role in Danny’s life and the lives of his schoolmates.
To be honest, I was okay with this book until it got to the part about the parent’s story and their struggles. It was then that I completely lost it. It was almost too painful to read. Danny’s parents were left raw and exposed, heartbroken and devastated. I ached for them. I was angry for them. The relevance of their story is a terrible reality, and one that is shockingly still going on today … not only across the world in China, but here … in America. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will caution you to be prepared. The last quarter of this novel was sharp and painful.
I have to give this novel 5 out of 5 stars, it just … deserves it. It’s a hard book to read, but it’s important. It is relevant. It means something. Due to certain subject matter and triggers, I recommend this novel for ages 15+.