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“Picture me madly in love with this moving, tender, unapologetically honest book.” —Becky Albertalli, #1 best-selling author of Simon Vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Danny Cheng has always known his parents have secrets. But when he discovers a taped-up box in his father’s closet filled with old letters and a file on a powerful Bay Area family, he realizes there’s much more to his family’s past than he ever imagined.
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’s 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 in this complex, lyrical novel.
Praise for Picture Us in the Light
“Few books have ever moved me like this masterful story that pulses with love, loss, quiet hurts, and soaring dreams. An instant classic.”
—Jeff Zentner, William C. Morris Award–winning author of The Serpent King and Goodbye Days
“Picture Us in the Light illuminates the intricate bonds that draw us together. Danny Cheng, a young artist growing up amongst Ivy League–minded peers, will break your heart into a million pieces, and then quietly put it back together. Impressively layered and real.”
—Stacey Lee, 2017 PEN Center USA Literature
Award–winning author of Outrun the Moon
“Heartbreaking and transcendent. Gilbert is a true artist of character, both obscuring and illuminating with each brilliant turn of phrase. In Danny, she gives us a narrator who, in so deeply and completely revealing his own inner life, shows us each other and ourselves.”
—Anna-Marie McLemore, author of Stonewall Honor book When the Moon Was Ours and Wild Beauty
Praise for Conviction
“There are no easy answers. Love is both beautiful and cruel. God is both loving and mysterious. And family is both comforting and suffocating. Both hopeful and devastatingly real.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A poignant look at the messiness of love, faith, and humanity.”
—School Library Journal (starred review)
“Gilbert respectfully and sensitively handles themes of faith, religion, and family…[a] moving debut.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Copyright © 2018 by Kelly Loy Gilbert
Cover design & hand lettering by Maria Elias
Cover illustration © 2018 Adams Carvalho
Designed by Maria Elias
All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion, 125 West End Avenue, New York, New York 10023.
For Zach and Audrey—
there will always be so much darkness in the world, but may you never stop finding light and shining it all around you—
and for all the kids living in the shadows
Years ago before there was me, while all that cosmic dust that would become my cells was still spinning and cycling through the eons of the universe, there was the image of a life. A better one, I guess, according to whatever calculations my parents were going by then, and so they let go of the world I would’ve been born into, the only world they knew; they held to the promise of that new life and crossed an ocean and tied our destinies to everyone we’d find on the other shores.
The three of us live in Cupertino now, in the Bay Area—six thousand miles from Shiyan, China, where my parents are from. From what I’ve looked up, it’s pretty there: craggy green mountains rising into the sky, the city cradled between the peaks. You can take a gondola up the mountain. When my parents were growing up, there wasn’t too much to do there except work in the auto factories, and they both went to Wuhan University, five hours away, and met when they were just a little older than I am now.
They moved first to Texas, where they were students, and then California, where my dad got a job in a lab for a physics professor, which is what he’s always planned to become. By day, he studied indirect excitons—don’t ask—but on the side, nights and weekends when the lab was a ghost town and his boss wasn’t around to see, my dad was conducting a secret experiment.
The experiment was about quantum entanglement, which my dad explained to me once this way: if atoms interact with one another, then even after they separate they’ll keep behaving as though they’re still connected. The way they move, or decay—everything will be reflected across the entire entangled system. Once, when I was in third grade, before he’d told us anything about his experiment, my dad brought me and my mom in to show us. We went on a Sunday, after hours. On the drive to his lab my dad was animated, excited and nervous both, and he talked fast and kept looking over at my mom to see how much she was listening and it gave me the feeling that somehow, whatever it was he was doing, it was for her.
My dad’s experiment went like this: he’d bring in pairs of people who fell into three categories: people who’d never met, people who’d met a few times, and people who were close family. With each pair, he’d take a picture of one person, and then he’d separate the two people into different rooms at opposite ends of the hall. In one of the two rooms was a screen. He’d set up each person with a blood pressure cuff, a thermometer, and electrodes to measure brain waves and blood volume. When people’s vital signs had stabilized, he’d take measurements, and then in the room with the screen he’d flash the photograph of the person you’d been paired up with.
The people who were in there watching the screen, the results were pretty predictable. For the strangers, there was no reaction; their bodies didn’t care if they were thinking about the other stranger or not. For the people shown photographs of their loved ones, there’d be some kind of flush—a definite physiological reaction. For the acquaintances, it was more sporadic.
But it was the other ones who mattered, the ones down the hall a hundred yards away without a photograph. Because: for the family members, their physical responses matched their partners’. If you printed out the physical reactions, side by side, they would match perfectly. If it was your mother or wife or son or brother down the hall, when they were thinking of you, you knew. Your body knew, your atoms knew, you felt it somehow when they did. My dad claimed the odds that this would be a random coincidence were so staggering that you’d have an easier time trying to prove the existence of God.
That day, I told my dad I wanted to be the one who was looking at the picture. That part seemed easier, and I was afraid otherwise I’d screw it up, and I could tell how desperately he wanted this to go right. My dad took me next door to the first room, and I sat in the swiveling chair across from the TV screen.
“Your mom’s going to understand when she sees the results,” he told me. His eyes were hopeful and bright, and maybe nervous, too, underneath that. “It’s one thing to hear me talk about it, but when she sees it with the two of you, she’ll understand.” He finished with the electrodes and patted me on the back. “Ready?”
I nodded. I said, “I hope I do it right.”
“You’ll do fine. Just watch the screen.”
He disappeared again. My heart was thudding as I waited. The screen flashed to life, a picture of my mom appearing. It was her at their wedding reception, dressed in a long red qipao with her hair piled on top of her head; she was turning back over her shoulder to look at the camera and she was laughing. I thought: I love you. I thought: Please work.
It was a few more minutes before my dad came and brought me back to the main office with my mom. She was quiet the way people get when they want to be alone. My dad had two printouts, and he spread them out on the table.
“Look,” he said, and we saw it at the same time: the matching peaks and valleys in the graphs in my chart and in hers. He looked at my mom, and it took me a few seconds to identify his expression: he was shy. “Do you see?”
I saw. I saw it like there was nothing and no one else in the room at that moment. And something happened to me then, and we’ve never been religious but that was the first time I got what it must be like, how sometimes something happens that takes you past yourself and you feel like your body’s not your own—you feel, all of a sudden, like it’s somehow much more than that. I think I have spent my life since then, with my pencils and ink and sketchbooks, trying to replicate that exact feeling to give to someone else.
“You see?” my dad said again, and without a word she turned and walked out of the lab, her shoes clicking down the linoleum hallway like she was trying to get out as fast as she could.
Later, at home, my mom begged him to quit what he was doing. They argued about it when they thought I was sleeping, but she won, and extracted a promise from him—he’d dismantle the experiment. They never talked about it after that, and I never found out why it had pulled at her the way it did.
As for me, though, I wanted to believe him that his results proved something. I did believe him. I still believe him. Because if you’re tangled up in someone else, if your futures are tied that way, if that’s real and if you know when it happens—then it means you know who you belong to, and you know whose fates are tied to yours, whether you like it or planned it or not, whether they still exist in the same world with you or they don’t, and I think that’s where everything begins and ends. I think that’s everything.
The letter from Rhode Island School of Design comes Thursday.
In the moment it most likely arrives at my house in all its power to alter the course of my entire life, I’m sitting next to Harry in the Journalism Lab, trying to fake my way through the graphic Regina asked me to illustrate for Helen Yee’s op-ed. I’m not checking my email, and in fact I’ve logged out of my account, partly because based on my obsessive stalking of old College Board forums I’m not expecting the decision just yet, but also partly because I know I’ll never feel ready to find out and I can’t risk getting that email at school in front of everyone.
When I get home that afternoon my dad is back from work early. He doesn’t even let me get onto the property line before he’s waving the letter in my face. My chest goes so tight it feels like it’s splitting right down the middle, my exposed heart pounding in open air.
“That’s from—?” I start to say, and then can’t say it aloud.
“Yes, yes. It’s finally here from RISD.” He and my mom both pronounce it like four separate letters, R.I.S.D., instead of ris-dee. He’s beaming. “Open it, Daniel, what does it say?”
“Okay. Um.” I take a deep breath, try to calm my thudding heart. “Okay. Let’s go inside first.”
“It’s the same outside or inside.”
Except that inside we don’t risk the neighbors getting a live-action shot of my every dream disintegrating. “Well—”
“Open it. Why wait?”
I applied for early decision two months and four days ago, and I’ve never been one of those people who can just put something so life-altering out of my mind. It’s stupid how you can wait for something with every part of you, your every atom aligned toward that one moment, and then when it gets there you want more time. It’s just that—if I didn’t get in, I don’t want to know it yet. I want the safety of hope just a little while longer.
“Here.” He grabs it from me. “I’ll open for you.”
“Wait, Ba, I—”
He’s too fast for me, though. My parents are convinced I’ll get in. The day I turned in the portfolio my dad brought home sparkling cider and three mismatched champagne flutes he bought that day at Goodwill, and I haven’t let myself imagine what it will do to them if I didn’t make it. He’s already got the letter out, is already reading it. “Dear Daniel—”
Then he flings the letter to the grass. I’ve lost all vision. The world is a blur. His arms stutter toward me. Finally, I bring myself to look at his face.
He’s laughing. Oh God. My heart swells, shoving my lungs against my rib cage and ratcheting my pulse so high I’m dizzy. I did it. All this time, and I did it. It’s real.
He reaches out and pats me awkwardly on the shoulder, and then—he can’t contain himself—crushes me in a hug before stepping back, embarrassed, smoothing his shirt. His eyes have reddened.
“Congratulations, Daniel,” he says, fighting to keep his voice steady. “Everything is going to be all right for you now.”
It’s real. I did it. I can picture it: my whole life radiating like a sunbeam out from this one point.
I got a scholarship beyond what I let myself hope for, so even if my parents can’t pay a dime, I’m going. Inside, I text Harry a picture of the letter. He doesn’t answer right away, and even though I know it’s because he’s in SAT tutoring, there’s an empty space inside my excitement and relief that’s waiting for him. A few minutes later—he must be hiding his phone from his tutor—his messages come flooding in:
Holy shit Cheng!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
You did it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I effing told you
Man you were so worried, but I told you
Okay draw me something and sign and date it, gonna make hella money off that someday when you’re famous
Yo actually draw me like ten things, 10x the $$$$$$$$$$$$
That empty space fills, spills over. I can’t keep the smile off my face.
Maybe I will draw him something. There’s a pull of momentum that’s carried over from opening the letter. I pull out a sketchbook, a pen. Maybe muscle memory will take over and I won’t have to overthink anything. I slide the pen against the page, let a tiny stream of ink spill out.
And then: nothing. Nothing comes.
Mostly, I draw portraits. From a distance, if you hold them at arm’s length or tack them up on a wall, they look like fairly standard realistic renderings, but up close the forms dissolve and you see that what you thought was wavy hair or an earlobe is really a tangle of small vignettes that make up the person’s life—a crumpled sheet of homework, say, a discarded candy wrapper, a plate of cupcakes that spell out PROM? I’ve always liked objects left behind.
But this is what’s been haunting me the past two months: I can’t draw anymore. At first I thought maybe it was that I was afraid of drawing something better than what I turned in for my applications, which would make me hate myself for doing early decision. But then it lasted, and keeps lasting, and I’m worried now that the truth is that something’s empty at the core of me. That whatever well you’re supposed to draw from to put anything worthwhile into the world—mine’s run dry.
Once, a few years after we moved here, my dad came home with a new pack of sidewalk chalk for me. It was one of the really good packs, with twenty-four colors and sharp ends, and right away I had the idea that I’d make a gallery out of the sidewalk in front of the house. I’d use the lines in the sidewalk as frames.
I spent hours out there. I was working on a picture of my old best friend Ethan’s dog, Trophy, when a man walking down the sidewalk stopped and loomed over me.
I smiled and said hi (in Texas you’re friendly like that, and for a while it stuck with me). He was in his sixties, probably, white with gray hair and a gray beard and walking with a cane.
“Crawling all over our sidewalks,” he muttered. He jabbed his cane toward me and raised his voice. “You don’t own this neighborhood. It’s not yours to make a mess all over. That’s the problem with you people. You think you can come in here and take over. You tell your parents we don’t want you here. You go back where you came from.”
The world closed around me. I went inside. I never saw him again.
I never told anyone about it (what would I say?), but for days after that I tried to draw him. I probably had some vague idea that I could turn him into some kind of caricature, just a random old guy frothing at the mouth who didn’t matter. Maybe you think if you can take something you’re bothered by and make it your own somehow you sap it of its power. So I worked on that sneer on his face as he looked at me, those shoulders puffed up with his own rightness. I drew pages and pages of him, and I named him Mr. X.
But he wouldn’t fade away. Now he leers at me from several places on my wall, which I’ve been drawing on with Sharpies since we moved in, and whispers all the uglier things inside my head. I don’t know why I keep him around. I guess I think art should probe the things you’re afraid of and the things you can’t let go of, but maybe that’s just because deep down I want to believe you can conquer them, which might not actually be true.
Anyway. Lately I’m a reverse Midas, everything I touch turning to crap, and so good old Mr. X has been louder lately: You’re a fraud, you peaked, it’s all downhill from here. The world doesn’t need your art. Get a real job.
But now I have concrete proof I’m not a fraud, or at the very least I’m an extremely convincing one. Which should change everything, right? The fog should lift.
I just need to start producing again—prove getting in wasn’t a fluke. Prove I do have the future I’m supposed to after all. Prove I deserve my future, at the very least. Not everyone gets one; I know that. It isn’t something you can squander.
“Let’s surprise her.”
“Huh?” I look up. My dad’s hovering in my doorway, joy radiating off him. He’s changed into khakis and a collared shirt, his hair combed. I say, “Where are you going?”
“We’ll go to dinner to celebrate when your mother gets home. We’ll surprise her.”
My dad has always loved surprises. Once, the summer I was eleven, he woke me up in the middle of the night and brought me, groggy, into the garage. On top of his car there was a telltale white paper sack, and he pointed to it.
“I went to Donut Wheel,” he said. “A bribe for you for after.”
“Um, for after—”
“Daniel.” He looked very serious. “On Saturday is Robin Cheung’s wedding.”
My parents had been taking a ballroom dance class at the rec center for a few years; it was my mom’s favorite hobby. (Weird, but: she also, every Summer Olympics, arranges her sleep schedule around the rhythmic gymnastics.) Their friends’ son was getting married and my mom had at one point expressed a shy desire to show off the fox-trot they were learning at the wedding, but my dad, apparently, was having trouble with the moves.
“So fast,” he complained. The naked light bulb swayed overhead, throwing his shadow self across the bare wooden walls. I was barefoot and in my pajamas. “The tango I can do, the cha-cha, but this one—too fast.”
“Um, so you want me to—”
“I bought you donuts,” he said quickly, seeing the look on my face. “What else do you want me to buy? I’ll buy you new pens. Do you want new pens? I’ll buy you whatever you want. And I won’t tell your friends. I promise.”
I am easily bought. I spent all night out there with him, my elbow resting on his and our hands interlaced as he led me around and around the concrete, his jaw tight with concentration. That weekend at the wedding—it was in the banquet hall at Dynasty, steamed bass and lobster noodles and pink neon uplights that made the lines of everyone’s faces look dramatic and sharp—I could see him tapping his fingers impatiently all through the dinner, all through the toasts. When the music started, he leapt up and held out a hand to my mom. I watched them on the dance floor, holding my breath, waiting to see if he’d pull it off. He did. Afterward she was beaming and out of breath, and they went to the open bar and came back with Manhattans for them and a Coke for me and they excitedly recapped all their steps, complimenting each other on their technique and form. I won’t lie: it was pretty damn cute. I want them to be that way—that sparkling, that effervescent—all the time.
“She will be so happy, Daniel,” he says now. “Can you imagine?” He pats his pocket for his phone. “Should we video her when you tell her?”
“She might never be so happy again. Maybe we’ll want it to look at later to remember.”
“That’s so fatalistic, Ba.” I get up and follow him out to the living room. “You want me to cook something for dinner instead? I think there’s pork chops in the freezer.” The one thing I can make: turn on pan, drop meat, cook.
He brushes it away. “No, no, tonight we’ll celebrate. When she gets home.”
My mom takes care of twin six-year-olds and a four-year-old for a family named the Lis up in the hills vaguely by where Harry lives. We wait for her on the couch. Usually my dad watches mostly news, scanning the screen like he can ward off disaster by watching it happen to other people, but today Planet Earth is on instead.
I grab a blanket from the armchair and wrap myself in it like a burrito. It’s been cold these days, and freezing, always freezing in the house, because my parents refuse to turn the heat on. I wear three layers to bed. Last year, when I drew a portrait of my mom, I made one of her eyes the thermostat, turned down all the way to fifty-five. I pull my blanket tighter and let myself imagine living in a (warm, heated) RISD dorm next year. Of all the people who applied, so many people who’ve probably been practicing their craft all their lives—they chose me.
My dad keeps glancing at the clock, and I can feel him getting restless as it traipses toward six-fifteen. It’s a minor emergency to both my parents whenever the other is late getting home, and I know my dad will take his phone from his pocket and tap his fingers against it, ready to call to check on her, right at six-sixteen.
“They were doing roadwork on Rainbow,” I say.
I motion toward his phone. “If she’s late. That’s probably why.”
“Oh. Yes.” But he doesn’t look any more relaxed. Then, at six-fourteen, we hear the garage door open, and my dad jumps up, his face lighting up again. “Where’s your letter?”
“It’s on the table.”
“Where’s my phone?”
He’s still patting the couch cushions looking for it when my mom comes in. He rises from the couch, smiling nervously, and then he whips out the phone—it was in his pocket after all—to record. “Anna—Daniel has news for you.”
“News? You have news?” My mom drops her purse and her bags of groceries from Marina. I watch the way their handles go flat, like a dog’s ears when it’s listening. “You got in?” She clutches my sleeve. “Did you get in? Did you—”
I flirt with the idea of pretending I didn’t, of trying to make her think it was bad news, but in the end I can’t hold back my grin. Her hands fly to her mouth, covering her smile, and her eyes fill with tears.
“He did it!” my dad yells from behind his phone like we’re a hundred yards away, his voice bouncing back at us off the walls and hardwood floor. This video (which he’ll watch on loop; I know him) is going to be all over the place, jiggling and blurred. He makes me show off the letter and hug my mom while he’s filming. My mom cries.
We go to Santa Clara for Korean barbecue, and I drive, because for whatever reason they always have me drive when we’re together. It’s not far, fifteen minutes, but you always kind of feel it when you’re leaving Cupertino, a bubble piercing. Cupertino’s mostly residential neighborhoods and then strip malls with things like the kind of American-y diner that probably used to be big here back when it was all orchards and white people, or the Asian restaurants/bakeries/tutoring centers/passport services/et cetera. It’s also its own world—land of overachieving kids of tech titans, of badminton clubs and test-prep empires and restaurants jockeying for Yelp reviews and volunteer corps run by freshmen who both care about the world but also care about establishing a long-term commitment to a cause they can point to on their college apps. When we first moved here from Austin, I remember being weirded out by how Asian it was. And how everyone has money, too, but mostly in a more closet way than they do in Texas—here you can drop two million on a normal-looking three-bedroom house, so it’s not something you necessarily notice right away the way you notice it when someone has a giant mansion on Lake Austin. (Harry’s house is an exception—he has two sisters and both his grandfathers live with them, and all of them have their own bedroom and I think there are at least two other bedrooms no one’s using.) I don’t think anyone I know needs financial aid for college. I don’t think anyone I know even needs loans.
*"All together, it's a heady concoction: a compelling story of all kinds
of love and all kinds of heartbreak overlaid with the unveiling of all
kinds of secrets."—BCCB, starred review
*"Family, art, love, duty, and longing collide in this painfully
beautiful paean to the universal human need for connection Exquisite,
heartbreaking, unforgettable."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
*"Gilbert masterfully negotiat[es] plot twists and revelations while keeping the focus on her characters."—Publishers Weekly, starred review
*"The author demonstrates exquisite facility with tech-savvy teen-speak
in every scenario and balances the authentic dialogue with elegant
prose."—SLJ, starred review
*"With grace and respect, Gilbert manages to address the existential
quandaries of both second-generation American teens and their immigrant
parents Gilbert methodically lays bare her characters' secrets as if she
was slowly pulling a cloth off a fine painting."—Booklist, starred review
"Picture Us in the Light illuminates the intricate bonds that draw us together. Danny Cheng, a young artist growing up amongst Ivy-League minded peers, will break your heart into a million pieces, and then quietly put it back together. Impressively layered and real."—Stacey Lee, 2017 Pen Center USA Literature Award Winning Author of Outrun the Moon
"A novel as radiant as its title suggests. Picture Us in the Light is fierce proof that Kelly Loy Gilbert is one of the best writers around."—David Arnold, New York Times bestselling author of Mosquitoland
"A searing exploration of buried secrets and the heart-wrenching ways
that they can tear child from parent, friend from friend and a community
from its long-held identity."—Sabaa Tahir, #1 New York Times bestselling author of An Ember in the Ashes
"Few books have ever moved me like this masterful story that pulses with
love, loss, quiet hurts, and soaring dreams. An instant classic."—Jeff Zentner, William C. Morris Award winning author of The Serpent King and Goodbye Days
- On Sale
- Apr 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers