Book Review: Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert // a personal review about asian american identity, suicide, and racism

Title: Picture Us in the Light

Author: Kelly Loy Gilbert

Published: April 10, 2018

Pages: 361

Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary, LGBT

Amazon / Barnes & Nobles / Book DepositoryGoodreads

Goodreads Description: 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. 

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If someone ever asked me what it was like growing up as a first-generation Asian American in the San Francisco Bay Area, I would hand them this book.

At its surface, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert was a story about high school senior, Danny Cheng, uncovering a family secret. But, peel it back, and the book had so many more layers.

Right away, Gilbert did a fantastic job at establishing Danny Cheng’s background. His parents were Chinese immigrants who moved to the highly affluent city of Cupertino, sometimes called the heart of the Silicon Valley, to offer their child a chance at a better life. They weren’t like the typical “tiger” parents of the kids Danny went to school with. Whereas his classmates’ parents tired their kids into becoming perfect versions of their visions of success (ie. doctors, lawyers, and engineers), Danny’s parents were lax and supported his ambitions of becoming an artist.

Not only did Danny win the lottery with his parents, but he also had an incredible group of friends. From the head of the school paper, Regina, to ASB president, Harry, Danny’s friends were not only extraordinary in their achievements, but also their character. While Danny did not have a fraction of the accolades or the wealth his peers had, he knew he was privileged just to live and go to school with them in Cupertino.

Danny’s acquiescence that everything in his life was perfectly A-OK because of his background and where he resided struck a chord in me.

He felt that he had no reason to complain because, hell, he had it good, and it could be so much worse. But, it was that tainted thinking that chewed away at his mental health and all the other fear-driven students at his school. It was challenging to “look on the bright side” when you were young and the only sliver of the world you had seen, and barely understand the mechanics of, was your hometown.

Trigger Warnings: suicide, death, racism, assault

It’s worth mentioning that the majority of the student body at Danny’s school was Asian and (although it’s never explicitly said) probably first-generation. I know there is the admittedly fortunate stereotype of Asians being the model minority, but I also don’t think people understand the stress the kids in Danny’s type of community are put under to uphold some crazy standards.

(When I was in high school, we had to fill out a 24 hour schedule and an advisor instructed us to make sure that we included 8 hours of sleep and that all our activities actually added up to 24 hours. Some people had submitted 26 and 28 hour schedules in the past.)

Students literally kill themselves over a pervasive fear of failure. There’s so much weighing on the shoulders of these kids because their parents expect so much of them. It’s not enough for them to be good at science or good at soccer—they need to excel. They all might be standout students, but in a school chock-full of outstanding students, they don’t all standout to colleges. Every year, some of them find ending their lives is an easier way out than dealing with the fallout of ruining their parent’s American Dream.

(My mom didn’t leave her seven siblings in the Philippines, toil away at 48 hour shifts in a new land, or commute four hours away from the Bay Area to work a better-compensated job for years only for me to waste this life of opportunity.)

It’s the prime example of the Suicide paradox. Danny and his peers are residing in apparently one of the best places in the world, yet the area also holds one of the highest national suicide rates for people in their age group.

Suicide was something that haunted my teenage years, and I’m so grateful to have finally seen someone address from the perspective I saw it, regardless if it was justin a YA book.

Even ensconced within his insulated bubble of “diversity (because I dont think a community where the “minority” is the majority is necessarily diverse), racists still found their way to puncture Danny’s world with remarks like “go back to your country.” Such a platitude was so stupidly simple for someone to say, but it was something Danny carried with him for life. A grotesque image of a man whispered to him that it didn’t matter that he was born in America, spoke like an American, went to an American school, or liked American things. There was always someone who viewed him as an alien invading their homeland.

(I’ll never forget sitting at a stop sign with my dad while a man honked his horn at us and told my dad, almost laughing, to go back to his country. This is his country. He hasn’t been back to India in almost two decades.

“It’s a strange and uniquely painful thing when you try to reach someone and instead you pass right through them, like a ghost; it makes you feel not all the way there yourself.”

This book felt extremely long, not in a particularly bad way, but because Gilbert seemed determined to dedicate the right amount of time to all facets of Danny’s story. Many events were revealed as drawn-out flashbacks, which added depth to the characters and complicated the present plot line. I was constantly flip-flopping about how I felt about certain characters, especially Danny himself, until I decided not to judge them too hard because they were all entirely human and fallible.

When I finally finished the book, I knew the story wasn’t just about high school senior, Danny Cheng, uncovering a family secret:

Picture Us in the Light was an emotional and beautifully constructed story that presented a kaleidoscopic view on immigration, love, sacrifice, guilt, identity, art, mental health, self-worth, and, ultimately, self-acceptance.

^Look at all those words lol. This book was packed.
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Picture Us in the Light spoke to my core in ways I cannot express. It was only one example of the Asian American experience, but it hit me again so forcefully of how important it is to see myself represented in stories. I know this book won’t have the same impact on everyone that it had on me—it’s one thing to read a ¡ᴰᴵᵛᴱᴿˢᴱ! YA story and another thing to live it. But if you want to read one account of what it’s like growing up as a first-generation Asian American, here’s the book.

☆☆☆☆☆

i loved it


Thanks for reading! This review felt a bit chaotic, but I hope I got some type of feeling across lol. I seriously didn’t think anything of this book when I picked up, so it evidently shook me 😅.
Have you read this book before? Would you want to if you haven’t? Let me know your thoughts 😊.

14 thoughts on “Book Review: Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert // a personal review about asian american identity, suicide, and racism

  1. Been a long time since I read any book tackling this issue. Fear of failure is so real in the hearts of students, especially high schoolers, and EVEN MORE SO AMONG THE MINORITIES..because they know how hard their parents have worked to get them there and what a shame it’d be for THEM if they didn’t match their exacting standards. They aren’t necessarily thinking about what it’d be like for them because that’s a luxury, being a minority, they just can’t afford. In these cases, it relies on the parents to make sure that they aren’t dumping THEIR baggage onto their children’s backs because that just isn’t the right way. Also, the ones who seem to have everything – good parents, friends, a home in a nice area – they just aren’t allowed to feel depressed by the society because then they are told that they are being selfish! That there are people living in worst circumstances, a point you excellently made in your review. But what people seem to forget is that everyone, even the richest and the seemingly happiest, have their own, unique set of problems to deal with and it just isn’t right to tell them that mine ordeals are worse than yours, so I GET TO COMPLAINT AND YOU DON’T! That is SUCH a fucked up though process to introduce in young, impressionable minds.
    I am so glad you did this review because you have reminded me of things that I too faced during high-school and it’d be nice to revisit that under a different light and voice.
    Beautiful review, as always Belle! ❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You summarized my feelings perfectly ♥️!
      Ok, now I’m just about to rant—I’m sorry, I just feel very strongly about how we communicate with others hahaha: It’s not a reassuring or healthy message we send to teenagers, or just people in general, when we block any therapeutic communication from happening with overused rhetorics. Plus, if people aren’t allowed to express discontent with their situations, no matter how simple they appear, how could any change or progress be made? Like you said, everyone deals with their own reality everyday, and a simple saying won’t change that fact. It’s too easy to tell people to suck it up instead of acting and help fixing what’s wrong. Even if listening and validating someone’s feelings is all we can do, it’s a hell of an improvement from just brushing them off.
      Is it bad that I’m relieved that you can relate 😂? It really sucks, but it’s comforting to know someone felt the same things (and I’m not just being over-dramatic 😅). Hopefully the weight of some of the problems have lessened now that you’re out of high school. This book was like someone giving me a big pat on the back and saying “it’s ok you felt that way.” I didn’t know how much I needed it, and maybe you might feel that way too hahaha 😁.
      Thank you again so much for your beautiful and thoughtful comment, R A I N ♥️.
      (…or do you prefer Rain¿)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I totally agree with you there! Most people underestimate the power of listening and just think that what good is that gonna do but the person who is suffering NEEDS validation and satisfaction that there is at least SOMEONE out there who understands! And THAT’S WORTH QUITE A LOT! That can literally save lives because then they don’t feel like they are alone…and it’s that loneliness that turns people into victims. It turns people mad. And ultimately they JUST CANNOT stand those late night cries and decide to give up. I just wish people listened without judging. That would sort a lot of problems!
        Oh no! Not bad at all. It’s the sort of thing that when you think you are the only suffering from it, it makes you believe that you are being dramatic and just…you know…but when you see that someone else feels the same way about them, it makes a hell lot of a difference. So nope..not bad at all. And even I am relieved that I am not completely bonkers in thinking all this and that someone can relate!

        High school was a suck fest, there’s no denying that and there were times when there was just a lot of pressure and I couldn’t tell anyone, and I finally understood the power of a BIG FUCK YOU to everyone. And from then, I just didn’t care what anyone thinks, yeah not even my family. I do what I want to do because I know it’s right. And that was…AHHHH!! SOO LIBERATING! 🤣🤣

        Hey, those experiences you mentioned in brackets in between the review, they are your own personal ones? If so, then I hope things are looking better now.

        I write R A I N because..well, it looks aesthetically pleasing but hey, Rain works just fine! ❤️❤️

        Ps sorry for the long ass comment! 🤣🤣

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes! I love this “…it’s that loneliness that turns people into victims.” You said it better than I can!

        Also, go you 😂!! At the end of the day, you know yourself better than anyone else, and you know what you need. It takes a lot of guts to give the middle finger to everybody and do what you want, especially with family! I saw somewhere that adulthood is trying to unlearn the things you learned growing up to become like the less inhibited child you once were, so you seem like you’re on the right path–no matter what anyone thinks!

        Yep, those experiences in brackets were mine, and yes, things are better now. It was very cathartic to write 😂.

        Ahhh, okay. I’ll just continue to call you R A I N so that we can appreciate you and your aesthetic hahaha ❤️.

        Don’t worry about the long ass comment!! I’ve been egging you on with mine too lol. You have a lot of incredible insight and I love how beautifully you phrase everything! It means a lot of to me that you ~listened~ to me and related to my experiences. Stay gold 👍🏽👍🏽💛.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. “adulthood is trying to unlearn the things you learned growing up to become like the less inhibited child you once were.” Wow, that’s really, really good! And I agree completely with this statement!

        Well I am glad to know that. Also, if you ever need someone to talk to without judging, I am TOTALLY THERE. ❤️❤️

        Hahaha!! 🤣🤣 MUCH APPRECIATED!

        Thank you so much for that! That’s the sweetest comment! I am so glad to have found your blog! You are the sweetest!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️😍😍😍😍😘😘😘😘

        Liked by 1 person

  2. While this book hasn’t been on my radar before, I’m adding it to my to-read list after reading your review – which didn’t feel chaotic to me, btw. 🙂 I’m glad you connected with this and it impressed you, and I love the way you described the book at the ending. Self-acceptance and self-love are SO IMPORTANT – and so is everything else you mentioned/was included in the book. Really great review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you didn’t find my review chaotic 😂. I really can’t recommend this book enough—hopefully, I didn’t hype it up for you too much! Self-acceptance was a big theme ❤️. Thank you so much for your comment, Veronika!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, wow. This wasn’t a chaotic review in any, any way at all, on the contrary, your review was absolutely stunning. I have this book on my TBR and on my wishlist, meaning that I really want to get to it and now I feel like it’s the next book I’ll have to get whenever I can. It sounds so good, powerful and emotional, too, and wow I’m just feeling like I’d adore this book. I can’t wait to read it. Thank you for this. ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it just seemed chaotic in my head then haha. This is definitely an emotional book, so it’s great for if you find yourself in that mood (ie. need a cry). I hope I didn’t hype it up too much and you do like it once you read it! Thank you so much for this comment, Marie ❤️❤️.

      Liked by 1 person

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