Today we’re thrilled to reveal an excerpt from upcoming YA romance When You Wish Upon a Lantern by Gloria Chao! The book was edited by Jenny Bak and will be released on February 14, 2023 by Viking Books for Young Readers. Preorder it here, here, here, or (for signed copies) here.
We previously revealed the cover here.
Acclaimed author Gloria Chao creates real-world magic in this luminous romance about teens who devote themselves to granting other people’s wishes, but are too afraid to let themselves have their own hearts’ desires—each other.
Liya and Kai had been best friends since they were little kids, but all that changed when a humiliating incident sparked The Biggest Misunderstanding Of All Time—and they haven’t spoken since.
Then Liya discovers her family’s wishing lantern store is struggling, and she decides to resume a tradition she had with her beloved late grandmother: secretly fulfilling the wishes people write on the lanterns they send into the sky. It may boost sales and save the store, but she can’t do it alone . . . and Kai is the only one who cares enough to help.
While working on their covert missions, Liya and Kai rekindle their friendship—and maybe more. But when their feuding families and their changing futures threaten to tear them apart again, can they find a way to make their own wishes come true?
A word from the author:
I am so excited to share with you the first chapter of my newest young adult romance. I wrote When You Wish Upon a Lantern at a time when I needed to remind myself that there was still good in the world. I set out to write a contemporary book that feels like magic, with the magic coming from kind acts for others. I hope to remind readers that even though it’s rare, magic can be found in the real world. And sometimes you have to make your own magic.
This book is a celebration of the beauty of everyday moments, of love, of friendship, of community. It’s also my love letter to my culture, featuring some of my favorite traditions, holidays, food, folk tales, and more. I hope you feel a little of the magic I felt while writing it.
May your wishes find the light!
If there was ever to be magic found on this Earth—this sometimes wretched, unremarkable Earth—it’s when I’m standing on the shore of Lake Michigan, the cold water dancing with my bare toes, and I’m looking at a lit-up sky. It’s not alight with stars or fireworks or a big, bright full moon, but lanterns. Paper lanterns with people’s wishes written on the side, carried into the never-ending dark night by a fire inside that matches the fire inside the sender’s heart. What could be more magical than a sky aglow with wishes and dreams?
There are many names for this miniature hot-air balloon—sky lantern, tiāndēng (a.k.a. “sky light,” translated literally)—but my favorite is the one my family’s Chinatown shop, When You Wish Upon a Lantern, has coined for our community: wishing lanterns. Because to us, the wish you write on it is the most important part.
Today is the first day of summer, June 21, and for the tenth year in a row, the Chicago Chinatown community has gathered at Promontory Point, a peninsula that juts out into the lake with big grassy areas, firepits, views of downtown, and large stone ledges leading down to the waves crashing against the shore. We’re here to celebrate a tradition started by my family’s little shop that could, which is fifty-one years old and responsible for two new holidays and many, many wishes being granted. In less than an hour, we will light up the sky.
Currently, my parents are managing the table we’ve set up with lanterns for sale, lighters, and markers. As I approach them to help out, I notice an additional person nearby assisting the surrounding customers. And he knows how to manipulate the sometimes-finicky lanterns as well as I do.
His presence stops me cold. The shock of straight, unruly black hair that’s often falling into his eyes, the confident yet humble walk, the lean forearm muscles honed from hours of kneading dough in his family’s Chinatown bakery, Once Upon a Mooncake . . . all of that would be enough to stop anyone cold when they see him, but for me? I halt because I have quite the oh no history with him, which I attempt to put out of my mind as he gives me a brief, deliberate, right-left wave from several feet away. I try not to let the chilliness of his gesture freeze my insides, but it’s all I can think about.
Before, we were childhood best friends, constantly playing together in the alley shared by our family’s neighboring businesses. Then, more recently, he started becoming Kai, as in Kai with the infectious laugh and defined arms and delicious buns (I’m talking about the breads he bakes, okay?). But before I could figure out what all that meant . . .
I threw up on him. A few months ago. We were having a blast sipping boba tea at the café closest to our shops when he made me laugh so hard that I snorted a boba ball up into my nose (yes, I know, I’m cringing too). Schloop, out everything came. On the table, in my lap, on him. So much on him. I died a little that day. Afterward, I was so embarrassed I steered clear of him for a couple of weeks, even telling my parents I was sick so I wouldn’t have to go to our store and risk running into him. But I didn’t mean for it to last forever. Somehow the avoidance snowballed, and we’ve barely seen each other since. Perhaps he’s keeping a six-foot splash zone between us (if it’s good for viruses, it’s good for vomit kind of thinking). Or perhaps he isn’t who I thought he was, given that he let that incident come between us. Or perhaps the awkwardness of it all is just too much, and every time he looks at me, he sees boba coming out of my nose. Whatever it is, I miss my friend.
Before I manage to give Kai a return wave, my father says, “Kai, thank you, but Liya’s here. You should go join your friends.”
My mother narrows her eyes at my dad. Then she calls after Kai, “Thank you so much for your help!”
I say nothing as I join them at the table.
“I’ve told you,” my father says to me, “to be careful of him. His family . . .”
His family, his family, his family. I tune him out. My father’s feud with the Jiangs is bordering on obsession now. Their trash smells worse than ours. They don’t respect our half of the alley. They filled our shared dumpster with spoiled dough, and when it rose, the dumpster exploded.
I guess it was for the best that I never figured out my feelings for Kai because the Jiangs and Huangs were becoming the Montagues and Capulets, the Hatfields and McCoys of Chinatown. And all because of garbage.
We didn’t have any issues with the Jiangs before this year thanks to my paternal grandmother, the peacekeeper. But after Nǎinai passed away six months ago, every dumpster incident has led to a heated argument. Now the feud is all my father talks to me about, partly because he’s avoiding the one thing we really should be talking about. And on today of all days, I’m so annoyed that I do dare to bring up the forbidden topic.
“It’s the first Summer Lantern Festival without Nǎinai.” The festival she created. “Can we just . . . have a moment of silence for her?”
That softens him. “I miss her too, Lili.” His use of Nǎinai’s nickname for me stirs up too many emotions. I busy myself by straightening the items on the already well-organized table.
Ya-ya would be the more common nickname for someone with my Chinese name, Lí Yǎ (the tradition is to repeat the last character), but Nǎinai always thought the lí part of my name fit me more than the yǎ. Together, lí yǎ means “will be graceful,” but lí by itself has several definitions, and Nǎinai always thought its meaning of “dark” fit me better because it made her think of the dark night sky we love—loved—to look at together. “You are the night sky that other people can shine against,” she used to tell me, her own dark brown eyes shining. “That’s why you’re so special. You put others first and make them shine, and there are very few people in the world who do that.”
“Liya?” my mother says cautiously, breaking into my thoughts. Concern seeps from her narrowed eyes and tight jaw. “Are you . . .” She can’t even finish that simple question.
I wish she would stop treating me like cracked glass, but I also don’t want to tell her I’m okay when I’m not sure what I am. Since Nǎinai was more of a parent to me than my mom or dad, they don’t seem to know how to step up now. After Nǎinai passed, my parents began tiptoeing around me, afraid to make things worse or remind me too much of her, and their tiptoeing has only increased over time. I wish I could tell them what I needed, but I have no clue myself. I guess my wish is for them to just know what I need, the way Nǎinai would have, and to just do it. My worst fear is that they’re right: I’m on the verge of breaking. Without Nǎinai, without Kai, and (in the important ways) without my parents, I’ve never felt as alone as I do now.
I swallow hard, swallowing my emotions down with my saliva. “What do you need help with?” I ask them.
“We’re fine here,” my father says.
My mother suggests, “Why don’t you join the festivities?”
“But not with him,” my father adds quickly. And sternly.
If Nǎinai were here, she would defend Kai. “He’s a good kid, the best! Have you seen how kind he is to his family?” Even the ones who don’t treat him well usually went unsaid. “And have you seen how hard he works in the bakery?” Working his buns off on the buns, I would always add, and Nǎinai would roar with laughter, her deep, resonant chuckles filling the air with her distinctive ha-has that I always loved because she literally said ha-ha over and over when she laughed, like it was so funny and she was so happy that she had to enunciate each syllable perfectly.
My mother grabs a lantern and pushes it into my hand. “Why don’t you make a wish tonight?” Her voice lowers and she struggles to get the next words out. “For . . . her. She’d want you to.”
I do have a wish I want to send into the universe. But I don’t want to do it alone. I also don’t want to do it with my parents. Nǎinai and I had many things that were just ours, and our biggest just-us tradition revolved around the wishing lanterns. I haven’t figured out how to do this (or anything, really) without her yet, how to fill that hole, or if I even want to. Her last words to me were Don’t be afraid. But I’ve been afraid for so long, ever since she fell ill, and I don’t remember how to feel anything else.
I take the lantern, and instead of grabbing one of the markers on the table, I take Nǎinai’s calligraphy set out of my backpack. My father smiles at me. I force one back at him.
“I’ll still help people with their lanterns,” I tell them.
They give me absentminded nods, distracted by approaching customers.
When I turn away from the table, my eyes land on Shue Nǎinai. Even though none of us are her grandchildren, the community calls her nǎinai because she loves us all like family and is constantly watching other people’s kids or handing out fresh homemade scallion pancakes (the thick, circular, flaky kind that requires mad skills). She lost her husband decades ago, and her children are grown and have moved away.
She’s currently standing with Daniel, the young chef who owns the trendy French-Chinese fusion restaurant around the corner from When You Wish Upon a Lantern. When Shue Nǎinai catches my eye, she waves me closer. I wasn’t going to interrupt, but then Daniel also begins waving me over frantically. Once I’m within earshot, I hear Shue Nǎinai mention a pot, and I immediately know she’s telling Daniel about her gift to the community’s most recent newlyweds, who moved into the apartment building down the street to attend graduate school at nearby UIC. I can practically recite the story for her: “I saw a top-notch pot for sale and it said ‘good pot’ on the side in nice lettering. So of course I bought it—it has to be good! It says so on it! But then, you’ll never guess this, when I gave it to them, they laughed because they say pot has another meaning! Did you know that? They think it’s so funny, the double meaning, but all I can think is, English has nothing on Mandarin. We have so many homophones and clever idioms, and we take them seriously. We’re the masters of puns! Even our traditions are based on double meanings, like how we eat fish for the New Year because ‘fish’ is a homophone for ‘surplus’!”
I know her stories better than the back of my hand (because let’s be honest, I don’t think I could pick my hand out of a lineup).
As soon as I join them, Daniel pats me on the back and darts off. He had given me thank you for saving me eyes that I have sadly received often when joining a Shue Nǎinai conversation. People say she tends to go on. I shake it off and hope Shue Nǎinai didn’t see, then I focus on her. She’s a good, if long-winded, storyteller, so I don’t mind as she, apropos of nothing, launches into the umpteenth iteration of how she met her husband.
One thing is different this time though. As she talks, her tone is less sad, more nostalgic. Her eyes are clear and hopeful, not clouded with tears. She confirms my observations when she finishes the story on a completely different note than in the past. Instead of talking about how much she misses her late husband or her kids, she says, “If I found love once, I might again, right?”
It’s so sweet I want to hug her. But I merely give Shue Nǎinai a smile and a “Yes!” that is emphatic but not as emphatic as I feel on the inside. It’s not in my DNA to show what I’m feeling. Or I guess, more accurately, I’ve conditioned myself to hold back my full reactions to most things. It started in fifth grade when Mrs. Hearn told the class that Stephanie Lee had won a spelling bee and I clapped enthusiastically, only to realize moments later that she had actually said, “Stephanie Lee was stung by a bee.” Then, as I sat on my hands and scrunched my eyes closed, Mrs. Hearn proceeded to tell everyone how Stephanie was extremely allergic but luckily had an EpiPen, which her mother jammed into her thigh right before the ambulance arrived to speed her to the hospital. Stephanie was fine in the end, thank god, but when I opened my eyes, the other kids and even Mrs. Hearn were still staring at me. I had never wanted so much for the earth to swallow me up. I felt horrible, and I suspect everyone else thought I was horrible too, especially Stephanie if she heard about what happened (and given the tight-knit community we live in, she definitely heard).
I relive that memory all the time. Almost as much as I relive the boba one. Now I keep my feelings to myself, and everything I do is from the background, hiding behind lanterns or a blank face. The only person I could be myself around was Kai, pre–boba incident. Post, I’m just as awkward as with everyone else, maybe even more so. I’m usually embarrassed about my need to hide in the shadows, but Nǎinai used to make me feel better. “You are the night sky that other people can shine against.” She viewed my fault as a strength. It made me feel invincible. Special. Loved. But now that she’s gone, I just feel small.
“I hope you make a wish for yourself tonight,” I tell Shue Nǎinai.
In response, she holds her unlit lantern up in front of my face. I can read most of the words, but I already know that the few Mandarin characters I’m blanking on are critical. And if you don’t know a word, you’re screwed. No sounding it out. Sometimes you can infer some meaning if the character in question includes a root or another word you know, but that’s more difficult for me than my parents since Chinese is my second language. So even though I speak it fluently, if I’m missing one or more essential characters, I usually have to give up.
Shue Nǎinai tells me her wish when she realizes I need her to: “You know Tang Xiānshēng? Boba shop owner?”
Do I ever. Mr. Tang was the one who brought napkins over on Day Zero. He and Kai both had bent forward to mop up my vomit but I couldn’t bring myself to let them. I did it myself, which took way longer and was maximally awkward since they didn’t know what else to do but stand there and watch. That’s my superpower: I’m the monkey-covering-eyes emoji personified.
Shue Nǎinai giggles softly, and it’s so unexpected and cute it distracts me from reliving my boba nightmare.
“My wish is for him. To notice me,” she says, giggling again. “He’s now single!” His divorce was finalized this year, and his ex-wife moved away to be with her new young boyfriend.
Instead of sharing in her giggles like I want to, all I say to Shue Nǎinai is: “May your wishes find the light,” which is what When You Wish Upon a Lantern says to every hopeful customer. Then I put a hand on hers. When our customers are open enough to share their wishes and stories, I want them to know that I am holding their hearts with care, the way Nǎinai taught me to. Making the wishing lanterns the distinguishing feature of our shop had been her idea, and she was one of those people whose outlook on life, whose pure love and joy for others, made her feel like magic. People confided in her before the wishing lanterns, and even more so after. When she fell ill, the entire community showed up at her bedside, and when she passed, a cloud of mourning descended over Chinatown for weeks.
“Guāi háizi, guāi háizi,” Shue Nǎinai says to me. Good kid can be condescending in other languages, but it’s the golden compliment in Mandarin when it comes from an elder. It was Nǎinai’s favorite way to describe Kai.
Shue Nǎinai eyes the lantern in my hand, then raises one eyebrow. She repeats the When You Wish Upon a Lantern customer mantra back to me in Mandarin: “Xīwàng nǐ de yuànwàng zhǎodào guāngmíng.”
Then she looks around, wondering what boy I will write a wish about, and even though that’s not my wish, I blush. Because there is a boy I want to write a wish about. I’ve wanted to for a long time. But I won’t. Especially not now.
In silence, I help Shue Nǎinai fluff up her lantern so it’s ready to be lit and sent off. Then I scurry away.
Without meaning to, I glance around until I spot Mr. Tang. I approach him and hover awkwardly, waiting to see if he’ll invite me over. But when he meets my eye, he simply gives me a nod hello and returns to his lantern, bending over it more than before. I’ve been around enough lantern festivals to recognize the subtle hints for wanting privacy. Most likely his wish is personal and he doesn’t want to share, but I also can’t help wondering if, like Kai, he’s scared of me now. Or perhaps the sight of me makes him cringe.
I immediately give him a wide berth (I take lantern privacy very seriously), but I can’t stop thinking about Shue Nǎinai’s wish. About how Mr. Tang looked so lonely writing on his lantern by himself. He didn’t want my company, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want any company. Perhaps he wanted a specific someone’s company?
I need to find out if there’s a chance, if there’s any hope for Shue Nǎinai’s wish. A plan is already forming in my head: how to approach Mr. Tang, how to create the ultimate meet-cute for them so that if there are feelings on both sides, bada bing bada boom, the fire from inside their lanterns will turn into sparks in real life.
That’s what I do. I make people’s wishes come true.
Well, I used to. With Nǎinai. That is (was) When You Wish Upon a Lantern’s secret sauce, why our wishing lanterns are the best: when a customer entrusts us with their dreams, we do what we can to make them come true, behind the scenes, unseen. The first time came when I was thirteen, after Lam Āgōng bought a lantern so he could wish for a taste of his past. He told us how homesick he was for Macau, and I will never forget the sadness that surrounded his hunched shoulders when he came in, or how his eyes had shone as he told us about his favorite foods to eat, temples to visit, gardens to wander back home.
“We have to help him,” I had said to Nǎinai. Instead of telling me there was nothing we could do, Nǎinai’s immediate response had been, “Let’s figure out how.” After brainstorming and Googling, we found a recently opened Macanese restaurant on the North Side of Chicago that made one of the dishes he had mentioned, minchi (minced beef with diced potatoes stir-fried with onions, seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, and served with white rice and a fried egg). Granting that wish was as easy as slipping the restaurant’s menu underneath his door. And when Lam Āgōng came into the shop a few days later, bursting to tell us that his lantern wish had come true and his taste of home had invigorated his old withered soul, that was it, I was hooked. I wanted to grant wishes for as long as I could.
For the past few years until she passed, Nǎinai and I were the unseen genies to our Chinatown community. “Partners in wish granting,” we loved to call ourselves. A play on “partners in crime,” but way, way better.
In the past six months, since her death, I haven’t worked on any wishes. It’s been too hard. But as I look back at Shue Nǎinai fussing with her lantern, a hopeful smile on her face, I feel that flutter in my chest.
This would be a wonderful wish to start back up with. And conveniently, it would also grant the wish I am about to make with the lantern in my hand.
I pause, taking a moment so my favorite sounds and sights can wrap me in nostalgia. I want to feel Nǎinai beside me again. The sky is pink, set aflame by the setting sun. Along the Point, children run and screech on the grass. Dogs lick their owners, strangers, and each other. Joy dances through the park. I look around at the people surrounding me. People I’ve known my whole life, the ones who I can turn to for the largest and the most trivial of problems. There’s Sung Ǎyí, who kindly shuttled me to and from the hospital while Nǎinai was sick and my parents didn’t leave her side. I wave to her and her two teenage daughters. There’s Yang Pó Pó, the sweet woman in her eighties who is so proud to be from Taiwan that she wears a necklace with a pendant the shape of the island. She’s known for the adorable paper frogs, fish, cranes, and shapes she makes by hand. And there’s Zhang Ǎyí, who used to feed me the grossest homemade red bean Popsicles that I had to choke down in front of her with a smile. (The more I choked down, the more she fed me; quite the bitter catch-22.)
Every single family I can see has at least one wishing lantern. They dot the sea of people like floating seagulls. Islands. A reflection of the stars. There is hopeful wish-writing everywhere I turn.
Nǎinai made this happen. She is here, all around me.
The sun sets and night slowly creeps in. I hurry forward down the stone ledges, closer to the water for a little privacy. I think of my nǎinai, run through memory after memory until I can hear her ha-ha-ha laugh and, I swear, smell the citrus-scented perfume she wore because “oranges are lucky.” With the calligraphy set, I paint my wish on my lantern in broad, bold strokes, just like Nǎinai taught me when I was eight.
I wish for Nǎinai’s legacy to live on. For me and my parents and the community to hold on to her.
One by one, lanterns are lit. As darkness envelops us, anticipation is in the air. Hope is on everyone’s breath.
Then . . . there’s magic.
With one collective inhale, everyone grasps their lanterns and sends them into the air. They flicker orange and yellow and red, gradients across the sky. It feels like the entire Point is lit up by floating glowing orbs shining down on us. I can’t take my eyes off them. I can’t move. I’ve done this too many times to count, but it never fails to take my breath away. And I hope to never lose this reverence.
I gently hug my lantern, careful not to squash it, then I light it and send it soaring up, up into the night. It hovers above me with the rest until, gently, smoothly, elegantly, it gets caught in a breeze and dances away, allegro.
As the lanterns are carried over the water, for a moment I want to reach out and call my wish back. Not because I don’t want it to come true (I do, with every cell and heart fiber) but because it feels so small in a sea of dreams, ones that seem more important than mine. After a moment’s hesitation, I let go mentally, and with a small wave of my hand, I send the wish out there.
Then I whisper an additional wish into the wind. One I’m too scared to write on a lantern.
I hope one day my other wishes also come true, not just the ones I send into the night sky. Maybe especially the ones I’m too scared to write down.
I don’t want to feel alone anymore.
I watch my lantern slowly shrink to a small circle, then a dot of light, then a faint star. And then I focus. Tomorrow, I will put my meet-cute plan for Shue Nǎinai and Mr. Tang into motion. The only thing more magical than seeing a sky full of wishes is helping them come true.
After a brief detour as a dentist, she is now grateful to spend her days in fictional characters’ heads instead of real people’s mouths. When she’s not writing, you can find her on the curling ice, where she and her husband are world-ranked in mixed doubles.