Review: Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert // a new favorite (that made me cry?!)
I don’t know how to even start this review.
Every time I try to express my love for this book, to even think about it, my eyes fill up with tears because of the sheer impact it has had on me.
I don’t know how to even begin to explain the deep wound it grafted in my heart, the heaviness that has settled on me after reading Danny’s story — so I apologize if my review is all over the place, because that’s exactly what my emotions feel like right now.
But I hope to succeed in convincing you to pick this up today, because if you take anything from my review, it’s that Picture Us In The Light is a gorgeous book and I loved it so, so much.
Before I get started, please use these resources to support everything going on in the world right now; remember to always show your support, even when social justice isn’t “trending.”
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 Silicon Valley 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 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 façade 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.
Picture Us In The Light follows Danny Cheng, a Chinese 18-year-old who has his life set ahead of him. He’s in his senior year of high school with a scholarship to RISD and is planning on pursuing art, his passion. But all of that changes through an intricate series of events that follow one after another and end up altering his life forever.
I’ve decided not to talk too specifically about what occurs in this book today, especially because it unfolds almost like a mystery, and I would hate to spoil its beauty for you. However, there are so many other elements I adored of Picture Us In The Light, starting with the first thing that drew me into it: Kelly Loy Gilbert’s beautiful, poetic prose.
While it wasn’t flowery or overly descriptive, it had a magical fervor that simply demanded attention. I found myself wanting to highlight so many of the paragraphs because they were effortlessly beautiful and read like a quote I wanted engraved in my mind forever.
“And maybe life is when you gather all the things you can hold on to and carry with you, and cross your fingers it will be enough.”
I also appreciated the characters so, so much, especially the protagonist Danny. His inner conflict and thoughts were slowly revealed, and it was so heartbreaking yet powerful to read about his growth, his insecurities as an artist and just as a person, and his frustration with how everything was unfolding in his life!
You could tell that Danny was an artist through the quiet observations and thoughts he made about the world around him, and his character voice was fleshed out so well. His thoughts were all so understandable, so real that I found myself rooting for him throughout the novel, whether he made good decisions or not.
Honestly, what made all of the characters in this so special to me was that they were human. They made mistakes, they had their low moments, and it made me love them even more for it. And as an Asian teen, Danny’s friend group and the cast of (almost) all Asian characters warmed my heart!
Speaking of friendships, the way Danny’s friend group was depicted made me so happy. All the side characters were three-dimensional and the flashbacks about their friendship sprinkled in throughout made me understand and love them even more.
While there was also a romantic subplot between Danny and his best friend Henry (best-friends-to-lovers my heart!! 🥺), I found myself loving how it only had a small role in the story — the focal point of Picture Us In The Light was Danny’s growth as a character, how he learned so much about everything around him and found a space of his own to fit in.
Much of this book revolved around family as well, and it was wonderful to see how Danny’s relationships with his parents were a prevalent part of the story. Many of the things his parents did were questionable, but it was all out of love and it was awful to read about the struggles they had to go through as immigrants to America.
(I would have included much more about the family relationships Gilbert explored, but like I said… spoilers!!)
I will always admire the way the author portrayed emotion, too — not just the strong, persisting feelings (which are always beautiful in their own way) but every different kind of emotion: the feelings that dig into your side like thorns, the distant throb of past grief, and the stark heaviness of sharing a burden like a secret.
I’m not sure I’ve mentioned this on my blog before, but I almost never cry while reading a book. (which is sometimes a good and sometimes a bad thing??) I’ve definitely teared up while reading before, but I can’t remember the last time I shed tears over fictional stories… which is why it came as a shock to me that Picture Us In The Light was able to make me cry: multiple times.
There was just something so special about the story Kelly Loy Gilbert had woven, something so delicate about the characters and emotions portrayed that allowed me to confidently state that this is one of my favorite books.
This novel ended quite abruptly, but I think that’s what the author intended in order to bring in a sense of reality, and also to allow the reader to let Danny’s story dwell in the reader’s minds for a little longer. And that’s exactly what happened to me: even a few weeks after finishing it, I still find myself thinking about it.
It frustrates me that more people have not picked it up — if you enjoy heartwrenching contemporaries, complex family and friend relationships, a soft romance that doesn’t take over the main character’s development, or simply the joy of reading an utterly beautiful and poignant story (i’m sorry but who doesn’t want any of these things??), you need this in your life now!
“Or maybe we all just forgive the people we love, because we love them, and for no other reason than that.”
Final Rating: ★★★★★ // 5 STARS
Although there’s so much more I could talk about, I’m ending this review here along with an aesthetic I created that (I hope) captures the essence of the book. If my review hasn’t convinced you to read this, I hope this can!
I’m an Indian-American teen passionate about telling stories through digital media. On my blog, I talk all about stories—from books to music to anything in between—but especially the stories that make my world a little brighter, like stars.
This sounds like such a beautiful book, and you’ve honestly sold it to me! I’m definitely going to be putting this one on my list!
About the crying, I’d probably say I cry fairly easily – not just when a book is sad, but when it’s happy, or unexplainably overwhelming, or simply too beautiful to think of in words. I’m definitely a crier, hahaha, and judging from your review, I can probably see myself shedding a couple of tears for this book too!
ahh that makes me so happy, i really hope you enjoy it!! 🥺❤ about crying, i’m pretty much the opposite haha, but i definitely tear up if the book is so stunning to think about in words!! yesss i can’t wait for you to read this 💖💖
ahh, i’ve seen multiple people refer to this book as an underrated fave, and i’m so excited to pick it up, especially because i’m chinese like the mc 😭😭 i’m so happy that you loved it so much, and i never cry because of books too lmao. so i’m excited to see if this will make me shed tears 😅 as for a recent fave of mine, idk, i’ve been disliking so many books lately :(( but i really enjoyed you should see me in a crown by leah johnson! i’m so glad i gave it a shot even though the premise didn’t interest me ❤
ahhh i really hope you enjoy it 🥺🥺 lmao yes i remember you’ve mentioned that in your posts before, so i hope this is able to make you cry (that’s such a weird thing to say but u get it hehe) ❤️ i hope you’re able to find new faves soon, and omg yes i loved you should see me in a crown as well!! 🥰
You have definitely convinced me to pick this up!! I love books that are focused around character development because honestly nothing is more beautiful than growing as a person and watching someone else do it too. I am a pretty emotional reader? The other day I was up till midnight finishing Only Love Can Break Your Heart and honestly my eyes were so full of tears that the words were honestly blurring 🤭 It definitely hit hard for me and the emotions I went through in that book were divnsivjeivjd. I hated everyone and loved everyone all at the same time, it was crazy!! Amazing review though Ash, I love how you don’t ramble, unlike me!, 😂
omg amber i’m so glad and i hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!!! yessss, character development is one of my favorite things in books 🥺 omg i’ll have to check out only love can break your heart, it sounds so good! haha yes this book was definitely a whirlwind as well so i can relate!! ahh thank you 🥰🥰 no you don’t ramble at all, i love comments from you!! 💖💖
For sure and me too!! I’m going to hassle the library today so I can reserve a copy 😂 Same here, it’s so lovely to read about 🥺 Yes please do!! It was such a n eye opener and dufneifjd words just don’t even come close. For sure, sometimes it feels like when you read the last sentence you literally have to take a breath 😂 Of course and really?! Same here, your comments always make me smile ❤️
Oh, I love the sound of this! YA books that do a really good job of digging into family dynamics are always my favourite kinds. Your family is so foundational to you, especially at that age, it always makes me happy to read books that really get into how complex those relationships can be.
Also best friends to lovers. Ugh, loooove that trope
Ash, this is such a gorgeous review!! Your way with words >> you’ve convinced me to add this to my TBR and now I’m very much looking forward to it!!🥰
I love when friend groups in books have such three dimensional characters because what makes books amazing for me is when I really feel immersed in every character, not just the main character, so I’m really happy to hear this one is like that. You also know that I’m always here for a best friends to lovers so of course I’m already crying over that and I haven’t even read the book. Lovely review!❤️
olivia!!! you’re too kind to me ahhh 🥺😭🥰 i am so happy to hear that and hope you enjoy it if you pick it up!
yes, you described it so perfectly!! it’s so important to be able to understand *all* of the characters, not just the mc. and best friends to lovers is THE best trope so i’m glad you’re excited for that 😌 thank you so much, ily 💖💖
Picture Us in The Light has been on my tbr for almost a year, ever since it was recommended to me by Belle! AND NOW HAVING READ YOUR REVIEW, I just…I feel impatient to read it asap! LOVED IT, Ash! 😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍
Oh god oh god this review. I’m shook and I’m so, so impatient to get this book even if I feel like it would make me so emotional, as well. I’ve had this book on my TBR for a little while now and haven’t had a chance to get a copy myself, but I can’t WAIT to do so. I mean, the friendships, the family, the emotions the ahhhhhh I adore that quote you mentioned as well ahhhh. Thank you for sharing!!! 🥰
ahhh marie!!! i really hope that you’re able to enjoy this, basically everything about it was perfect and i cannot wait for you to experience it!! yessss kelly loy gilbert’s writing is everything 😭 thank you for your lovely comment 🥰🥰
Wow, I am absolutely sold. What an incredible review, Ash! I know how impossible it feels to write a review for a book that meant so much to you, but absolutely nailed it. Oh wow, those quote hit me in the chest 😭 I love the sound of everything about this, from the well developed side characters to the little bit of romance to the focus on family, and now I can’t wait to read this!!
ahh!!! thank you so, so much, margaret – that means a lot coming from you 🥺🥰 yessss the quotes are absolutely beautiful and i can’t wait for you to experience all of the elements when you pick this up ❤️
[…] All I’m saying about this is that it’s probably my favorite book of the year so far, it was able to make me cry, and you need to go pick it up now!!! (Y’all slept on my review of this so go read it here!) […]
first of all, this review is absolutely amazing and so well-written! (definitely so much better than anything i could write, since i’m just incoherent when it comes to this beautiful book.) second of all, i am SO SO happy you loved this one!!! it was one of my favorite books last year, and one of two books i rated 5 stars, and it’s just… so so good.
you’re absolutely right about how human the characters feel — it’s just such a raw story packed with exploration of identity and portrayals of really, really human emotions. and god i LOVE IT! also — i really loved how you managed to be specific yet vague about this book!! i feel like this is one of those stories you enjoy more going in not knowing too much ❤
okay may that means SO much coming from you, thank youuu!!! 😭😭🥰 and ahhh i’ve seen you recommending it multiple times and i’m so glad i was able to pick it up. it definitely deserves that five star 😌
yes yes yes oh my god!! raw is such a great way to describe it, everything about it is just so human and beautiful. i’m so glad you liked that because i wasn’t really sure how to even begin to describe the book, lmao, and i agree that it’s better to have that sense of surprise going into it! i went into it with pretty normal expectations and was just… blown away. 😅💖
[…] Ash @ Starlight Strands’ review of this book absolutely convinced me not only that I have to pick up this book, but that I’ll probably love it. From what I can tell, this is the kind of YA contemporary that I tend to adore: beautiful writing, amazing characters, and will definitely make me cry. I also love the sound of the focus on family relationships and uncovering family secrets! I have really high hopes for this book, so fingers crossed that they are fulfilled. […]
[…] Picture Us In The Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert (5 stars): I know I never shut up about this book, because it was my favorite book of 2020, and is also probably my favorite book all time. (I finished rereading and annotating last week as my first read of 2021 and I cried!! a lot!!) So I’m going to keep this brief and just tell you to just GO READ IT. [read my review] […]
[…] I’ve mentioned this book probably hundreds of times before already, but I will never stop recommending it, because it is just that phenomenal. For the sake of not sounding like a broken record, I’m not going to talk about it and just share the two songs I most associate with it! (read my book review here if you haven’t yet) […]
[…] just going to be showcasing my 5 favorites of the month (excluding rereads because I reread Picture Us In the Light as my first read of the year and cried again at its beauty!!), as well as my February […]
[…] so well that I couldn’t stop myself from highlighting almost every sentence. Like I said in my review of Picture Us In the Light, her writing isn’t even overly descriptive or detailed, but the way she strings phrases together […]