Bay Area academic culture portrayed in Y/A novel ‘Picture Us in the Light’

April 27, 2019 — by Samantha Yee

Walking into the Saratoga Library, all I knew about the Adult Book Club I was attending was that author Kelly Loy Gilbert would be discussing her most recent, critically acclaimed novel, “Picture Us in the Light.”

While I had appreciated the novel, I had only a vague idea of what the Adult Book Club scene would be like. A part of me expected to see a cliche gathering of moms or high-strung 20-year-olds at a panel interview. Instead, I was introduced to a circle of aunts and grandmothers conversing directly with Loy Gilbert about topics that hit rather close to home.

It was alienating to be the only teenager in the meeting, but strangely liberating. I got to hear the so famously stereotyped “back in my day” generation candidly discussing what they really thought about Bay Area youth.

It was riveting how some of the attendees identified so closely with a book I had internally only connected to other people my age.

The book’s protagonist, Danny, is an artist with a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design and a set career path in mind. The plot is driven by Danny’s discomfort about leaving his friends and a secret his parents have kept from him. The story’s setting in the Bay Area, Loy Gilbert’s home, plays a major role in the functionality of the plot and is what caught me somewhat off guard while reading.

There are parallels to real places in the Bay Area within the book, as well as the familiar competitive but sheltered schooling culture that surrounds Danny.

Many of the book club attendees identified with this element of the story through their own kids, grandchildren, nieces or nephews.

One of the guests, whose teenage granddaughters recommended the book to her, was reminded of the academic pressure at Los Gatos High School and Monta Vista High School.

Another pointed out that their granddaughter, a 14-year-old, is constantly worried for “no reason.” Loy Gilbert notably linked that trait to Regina, one of her book’s characters.

This then begged the question of why so many high schoolers are so stressed, when we have “nothing” to worry about — most of us are provided with all our basic needs like food, a home and education.

One participant thought that there “doesn’t really need to be this kind of pressure that’s unnecessarily imposed on children,” reiterating that each child is different with a variety of future college routes that they can go down. Unfortunately, people in this area often don’t see it that way.

This touches on the quality of perfectionism. In “Picture Us in the Light,” Danny isn’t the idealistic, stereotypical vision of a Bay Area student who goes into math or science, but he’s still on a track to the notable RISD. No matter which field a student might choose, there’s an innate competitive instinct in environments with high educational standards.

Of course, this pressure couldn’t be addressed without grades being factored in. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a parent, teacher or faculty member urge us not to stress about our grades. However, before actually being accepted into a college, many still fixate on measuring their skill level and talent by the grades they receive.

Admittedly, I’ve unconsciously tied my self-worth to grades and test scores and been an enabler to friends who have a dread-inducing academic schedule and unhealthy sleeping schedule to match it.

Many of the book club members voiced that a mindset like this is immature and unnecessary. In Loy Gilbert’s book, Danny is portrayed as just as imperfect, living a sheltered, Bay Area lifestyle full of unhealthy competition. When he’s later faced with crippling art-block after he’s accepted to RISD, he bases his individual worth on what he can and cannot do with his art anymore.

For Danny, despite the accomplishment of getting into a renowned school, there’s still a lingering unsatisfied feeling. To him and others who were raised in competitive environments, there is a need to keep amping up personal goals and talents, so much so that it can become unhealthy.

One participant addressed the option of going to community college, which a lot of students vying for excellence don’t even consider.

Loy Gilbert mentions the element of possibly going to community college in her novel. In my experience, not many people think about the possibility of going to a community college — likely a result of some bizarre cultural taboo. I recall my own parents encouraging me to go to any school of my choice, “as long as it’s not something like West Valley.”

One question that was brought up was, “Would the book have worked in any other setting?” There was a chorus of loud sighs and relatable head-shaking as soon as this was mentioned.

“Anywhere you have pockets of academically high performing places, I think that [the mentioned academic pressure] happens,” Loy Gilbert said.

She explained how people she knows that have lived in places similar to the Bay Area “reverberate” with past memories of academic stress, even after their education was over.

Loy Gilbert describes the Saratoga pocket as a bubble. Most children are unaware of how sheltered and fortunate they are. The high housing prices in the area were also a factor in the story.

“As I got older, it was shocking to learn stuff about food insecurity in the Bay Area,” Loy Gilbert said. “In Saratoga, Cupertino and other areas, [food insecurity is] not something you see, and it’s a very brutal issue affecting the community. You see things one way, but then 20 minutes away, you can see that’s not necessarily true.”

I left the book club with a reclaimed sense of what it is to be a student in the Bay Area, and how older generations see our lives. The novel’s reflection of Bay Area academic culture turned out to be more accurate than I imagined.

In reading this book, the Adult Book Club members also seemed to have similar thoughts. Loy Gilbert addressed them afterward: “What was fun was that we’re not used to reading about teenagers, but we all get so much out of it.”

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