Cover Reveal: This Is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio
It’s time for another ✨ cover reveal ✨, and today, it’s for a book that is close to my heart. Why, you may ask? Well, not only is Ilene Wong Gregorio one of the founders of We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit organization is focused on putting more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children, but she’s also the author of a YA novel that expertly tackles the topics of race, prejudice, and mental health. These are all topics that affect everyone everywhere—myself included—which is why I’m so excited to present to you Ilene’s newest novel, This Is My Brain in Love.
This Is My Brain in Love is a stunning YA contemporary romance that explores mental health, race, and self-acceptance told in the perspectives of Jocelyn Wu and Will Domenici.
Jocelyn has three wishes: to make it through junior year without dying of boredom, to direct a short film with her best firend, and to get at least two months into the year without being compared to or confused with Peggy Chang, the only other Chinese girl in her grade.
Will has two goals: to find a paying summer internship, and to prove he has what it takes to be an editor on his school paper.
When Jocelyn’s father tells her their family restaurant may be going under, all wishes are off. It’s up to her and Will, her unlikely new employee, to bring A-Plus Chinese Garden into the 21st century. It starts off as a rocky partnership, but we all know what happens there ;-)
Before I share with you the first chapters of both Jocelyn and Will, I present to you the animated cover of This Is My Brain in Love by I. W. Gregorio, coming April 2020!
This Is My Brain on Bankruptcy • Jocelyn
Irony: The year I decide that central New York isn’t a total dump after all, my dad finally admits that it was a mistake to move here.
It’s one of the rare days that my whole family gets to spend together. Usually my parents trade off running the register downstairs in the restaurant, because they’re incapable of trusting anyone else to do it, but when our water main breaks in the middle of the lunch rush, we can’t get a plumber to come in until dinnertime.
My brother and I greet the news like it’s a snow day. Family meal! Amah, our grandma, won’t be doing prep work, so she can help Alan with his algebra! We won’t need to help with cleanup after we’ve finished our homework, so maybe I’ll finally have time to work on the screenplay I’m writing with Priya!
The excitement dims pretty quickly, though, when I see that my mom’s almost at the point of tears when she writes the CLOSE FOR REPAIR sign that I edit to read CLOSED FOR REPAIRS.
I start to get really worried when I watch my dad pour Pepto-Bismol for his dinner instead of his usual chrysanthemum tea, so I pay more attention than usual to the heated conversation my parents have in their bedroom. I basically speak Mandarin at the third-grade level, never really having applied myself at the Mohawk Valley Chinese Association’s weekly language school, but even I can pick out the words “expensive” and “no money” and “back to New York City.”
After a long phone call, my dad finally sits down at the dinner table. It’s littered with the usual hodgepodge of microwaved kitchen leftovers. The moo shu pork looks particularly deflated.
My mom looks at him expectantly, almost hopefully. He nods and looks at the rest of us. Amah and I look at him, but my brother is too busy stuffing his face with day-old egg roll to actually notice that my dad’s joined us.
“Alan,” my dad says sharply. He waits for Alan’s five-second attention span to focus before he says, “Second Uncle says manager at Queens branch of his restaurant go back to China. May be time to go back to the city.”
The silence after his announcement is suffocating, like someone’s hoovered away all the life in the room. Living over a restaurant, you get used to a constant soundtrack of activity underlying your life. There’s always the sound of chopping, or the clank of a wok banging against a stove, or someone shouting or cursing in Chinese.
My amah is the first one to make a sound. It’s a soft, noncommittal hum. Two notes, questioning, neither approving nor disapproving.
Alan, still chewing, manages only a shrug and a “Huh,” which makes no sense because he’s the one who’s spent the majority of his life here.
So it’s up to me to say loudly, “No.” Because we can’t move. Not now, after I’ve found an actual bubble tea place in this godforsaken backwater. Not now, when I’ve finally got a chance to take a film class at the local college. Not now, when I’ve painstakingly identified a group of people I can tolerate as friends, and even found a best friend.
My mom’s looking down at her hands, and my dad’s glaring at me, so I elaborate. “Dad, please say you’re kidding. I’ve literally spent the last six years of my life complaining about moving to central New York, and you want to give up the restaurant now?”
My dad bristles at my tone (I swear, there are actual hairs at the crown of his head that stick up when he’s agitated). Alan’s eyes dart back and forth between my dad and me. With his cheeks still full of food, he looks like a squirrel watching a tennis match.
“Xiao Jia” is all he says, his voice low and warning.
I back down and try a different tack. “But…what about the schools? They’re amazing. You know I’m already set up to take a college class in the fall. And the restaurant has a following now.” Not a big one, but there are definitely regulars. “What if Alan takes over my deliveries so I can work the counter more and we, like, start a Facebook account or something. For free advertising. Check-ins, you know. It’s a thing.”
“Why are you only thinking of this now?” Dad asks. “You have been working at restaurant for forever, and never do no thing.” The worry lines on his forehead have morphed from frustration into suspicion. It’s a subtle shift, but a familiar one.
I don’t say: “Because the place sucks the soul out of the living.”
Instead I say: “I didn’t realize how desperate things were. I thought we were doing okay.” Looking back, I can see the signs. When Mr. Chen went back to Kaohsiung to be with his family, we never replaced him. My mom worked double shifts instead, and my dad started to do his accounting and ordering at the restaurant so he could lend a hand when things got busy. Suddenly a lot of little things make sense: why my mom would scold me when I’d leave the light on after leaving a room, why Alan couldn’t go on his sixth-grade field trip to Great Adventure, why they canceled our Netflix subscription so I had to “borrow” Priya’s login information to feed my prestige TV addiction.
“Has this been going on for years?” I ask my dad, horrified.
His bowed head, and his silence, are my answer.
A few years ago, there was a 5.0 earthquake on the East Coast, with its epicenter in northeastern Pennsylvania. It was a pretty big deal and caused some minor property damage (coming from the West Coast, of course, Priya rolled her eyes and sent out a meme about lawn chairs being knocked over). I’ll never forget how my body felt in that brief moment of shift: paralyzed yet at the same time pushed by an outside force terrifyingly beyond my control.
I feel the same sensation right now. And I think: This is it. This is the “Nothing Is the Same Anymore” trope.
When I started hanging out with Priya and really started getting into film—not just watching movies, but analyzing them—it was kind of a buzzkill to realize that so many of the movies that gave me joy as a kid were actually pretty formulaic. Priya and I would have “Name That Trope” movie nights during freshman year (I usually won, because her parents majorly limited her screen time, whereas mine were so busy with the restaurant I could usually sneak in some TV with my amah). But as our game evolved from a joke into a way of seeing life, I realized that tropes are more than just clichés. They’re neither good nor bad. They simply are, like earlobes and Winnie-the-Pooh. They’re a reminder that all stories are cut from the same cloth, with patterns that are recognizable, even when they’re unique and surprising. Seeing these patterns helps us make sense of the world, helps give us a framework for navigating what might come next.
What comes next for me is the “Big First Choice” trope. Am I going to go gentle into that good night, or am I going to be dragged from the life I’ve finally built for myself kicking and screaming?
Come on, like you really had to ask.
I start off with appealing to my dad’s natural tightwad tendencies. “You can’t really want to move back to New York. Didn’t you mention last week that Second Uncle’s parking space costs more than our rent?” We left the city when I was pretty young, but I remember him constantly complaining about the traffic, the rude customers, and how Second Uncle lorded over him. “Where would we live? Alan and I are too old to sleep in the same bedroom anymore.”
“You think I haven’t think of this?” my dad grits out. “You think you so smart?”
“Aiya, Baba,” my mom murmurs, putting a hand on my dad’s arm before things escalate. “Ta xiang bangzhu ni.”
Dad’s nostrils flare as he takes a deep breath, and he rubs his hand over his eyes.
I regroup and try a different approach. “Baba. Mom’s right. I’m sorry I haven’t been more involved in the restaurant. I just want to help. Let me look at the numbers, brainstorm some strategy—that commerce elective you made me take has got to be worth something, right?”
Even as I say it, I get the sinking feeling that my dad’s right. It’s arrogant for me to imagine that I can swoop in with ideas from a high school Intro to Business class and turn around a restaurant that’s been foundering for years. It’s a measure of how desperate the situation is that my dad just throws up his hands and mutters “Haoba, suibian ni,” which is the equivalent of “Fine, try it your way.”
I take it as a win. For now.
This Is My Brain on Summer Vacation • Will
It’s the last day before summer vacation, and I may be the only one at St. Agnes High School who’s apprehensive about it. The twenty-four-hour news cycle of my mind is on overload. Manny is practically bouncing off the walls, high-fiving all his buddies from the soccer team and yelling “T minus one, baby!” He’s got a sweet gig at Amazing Stories, the local comic book store, so he’s essentially going to get paid for sitting around reading manga all day. Javier’s floating through the hallway wearing his shades and noise-canceling headphones, with a particular spring to his lanky step, telling everyone who will listen about the internship our computer science teacher helped him get at ConMed. If our local Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter were to see them, they’d put Javier and Manny into an ad depicting people who are “high on life,” right next to their retro “this is your brain on drugs” posters where the subject’s neurons are eggs cooking in a pan—meant to represent the perils of substance abuse.
I’m the only one of my friends who doesn’t have a headline, and the worst thing about it is that I have only myself to blame.
My anxiety only ratchets up when Javier and I walk into the media studies studio, which feels strange because for the past ten months it’s been my favorite place at St. Agnes. When I enter the classroom, Mr. Evans grins up at us like we’re prodigal sons returning.
“Will! Javi! Grab your chairs. I’m getting ready to give out my superlatives.” About a decade ago, St. Agnes’s staff got rid of yearbook polls after a voting scandal led the administration to proclaim that “all of our students are likely to succeed, so there is no value in suggesting that popularity can predict future achievement.” That didn’t stop Mr. Evans from making his own superlatives list as a way to announce next year’s editorial staff for the Spartan.
When I go to collect a chair from the bank of computers lining the room, it slips from my sweaty fingers, making an ungodly clatter. In my mind, I’m already making up my own superlative: William Obinna Domenici, Most Likely to Have Clammy Hands. No one seems to notice the racket, but my face still burns as I take my seat.
Mr. Evans perches himself on the edge of his desk, pushes up his horn-rimmed glasses, and thanks us all for a fantastic year. “You all should pat yourselves on the back. Online clicks were up ten percent, and we had an increase in ad revenue as well. Kudos to our business team.” He nods in my direction, and next to me Sanjit Mehta (senior, business manager) puts out his hand to high-five me (sophomore, reporter) and Javier (sophomore, photographer). The knot in my chest loosens up a fraction.
All day, I’ve been trying not to hope too much. A fair and impartial review of my prospects concludes that I’m too young to be one of the executive-level editors. When Mr. Evans sent around his end-of-the-year survey of staff, though, I figured it would be reasonable to throw my hat in the ring to be business manager since Sanjit is graduating. Barring that, I’m hoping to be a section editor at least. Opinion is my first choice—even though I hate arguing in person, I love being able to construct an argument on paper—then Features or News. Those are the high-profile sections that would get the attention of a school with a prestigious journalism program.
Mr. Evans starts off by acknowledging the graduating staff. Our editor in chief, Julia Brown (Most Likely to Be Incarcerated to Protect Her Sources), is going to Northwestern to study journalism; Sanjit (Most Likely to Retire at Forty) to Penn for business. Next, he announces the new editor in chief, executive editor, and managing editor, all juniors. I try to be a team player and look happy when three upperclasswomen snag the sections I wanted.
When Javier (Most Likely to Insta His Own Kompromat) is announced as business manager, though, I can’t completely hide my disappointment. Everyone else is laughing, because it’s true: Javier’s Instagram is filled with compromising pictures that would probably torpedo any future attempts to run for public office; but the best I can manage is a barely convincing smile.
“Congrats, Javi,” I say, slapping him on the back. “You’re going to be awesome.”
As I wait for my own assignment, I focus on slowing down my breathing, stopping my knee from jiggling so much it causes another furniture malfunction. Finally, after it seems like Mr. Evans has acknowledged every other sophomore on staff, his gaze turns to me.
“To Will Domenici, I’m delighted to bestow the title of Most Likely to Respond to a Tech SOS Within Thirty Seconds.” A ripple of laughter goes through the classroom, and my face feels like it’s going to spontaneously combust. Does Mr. Evans realize that he’s implying that I have no life? Apparently not: “With his history of reliability, tech savvy, and eye for design, I think you guys will agree that the Spartan couldn’t have a better assistant online manager.”
My classmates burst into applause, but for the second time in less than an hour, I have to force a grimace into a smile, and when I say “force” I’m describing a Herculean effort of acting and facial control that is probably Oscarworthy, or at least deserving of a Daytime Emmy.
Of all the positions at the Spartan, assistant online manager is the booby prize. You’re not a reporter. You’re not an editor. From what I’ve seen, you’re nothing more than a coding minion and social media gopher. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the fact that the web team is an integral part of the success of any paper, it’s just that I felt like I had more to contribute.
I try to explain as much to Mr. Evans after class.
“Just because you’re assistant online manager doesn’t mean that you won’t also be able to write,” he reassures me.
“I know, but…” My voice cracks, and I study the worn linoleum floor by Mr. Evans’s desk. I take a deep breath and try not to sound pathetic. “Is my writing not good enough? Do you not trust my editorial judgment?”
“Oh, Will.” Mr. Evans leans in toward me and looks straight into my eyes, like he knows I’m the type to be skeptical of any praise. “You’re an excellent writer. Your attention to word choice is phenomenal, and you are always clear and precise in your reasoning. Your fact-checking is top-notch.”
I wait for the caveat for five excruciating seconds.
Mr. Evans’s eyes flick away for a second, and when he speaks again his voice is gentler. “I’ve noticed, though, that you rely a lot on secondary sources and e-mail correspondence for your stories. Next year, I want you to focus on going behind the scenes to really dig deep. Make that extra call. Drill down and ask the hard questions that make sources squirm.”
He makes it sound so easy. How can I tell him that he might as well be asking me to fly to the moon?
As if to illustrate my failure, my smart watch buzzes. My parents got it for me a few years ago after my last panic attack, and it’s set to go off when my heart rate goes above one hundred beats per minute. It’s supposed to be a cue to do my mindful breathing and centering exercises.
I open my mouth, but it feels like I’m drawing in air from one of those tiny plastic-straw stirrers you get at coffee shops.
Five seconds in, five seconds out.
The slow breaths do nothing to quiet the heckling questions that fill my head like an out-of-control press conference: Mr. Domenici, why are you so afraid of making cold calls? Don’t you think that you’re constitutionally incapable of asking the tough questions? Do you really think that someone who can’t even order pizza over the phone without breaking out into a sweat is going to be the next Bob Woodward?
“Will, are you okay?” Mr. Evans’s round face is creased with concern. “I don’t want you to be discouraged. You’re only a sophomore, and you’ve already got the most important attributes of a good journalist. Integrity. Attention to detail. Work ethic. It’ll come.”
“Sure,” I manage to get out. “Thanks, Mr. Evans.”
“Did you end up applying to any of the summer programs on the list I sent out? That’s one way to start honing those investigative skills.”
It’s a struggle to keep the self-loathing out of my voice when I answer. “No, it didn’t work out. I couldn’t find the right writing sample.” The truth is, I’d started the applications to three programs but chickened out when it came time to ask for letters of recommendation.
Mr. Evans brightens. “Well, that’s something you can work on over the summer—some kind of long-form piece that’ll show them both your investigative skills and your analytic ability. Remember, there are lots of ways to learn leadership skills. I’d like to see you take on a bigger role on the staff next year, so look for a summer job where you can learn how to manage a team and start thinking of the newspaper as a business whose readership you can grow.”
Furiously, I scribble down my assignment: Write a long-form piece. Make the calls and ask the hard questions. Learn how to manage a team. Grow a business. They’re only sound bites for now, and developing the story is going to be my big summer challenge, but all I can do is try.
Jocelyn Wu has just three wishes for her junior year: To make it through without dying of boredom, to direct a short film with her BFF Priya Venkatram, and to get at least two months into the year without being compared to or confused with Peggy Chang, the only other Chinese girl in her grade.Will Domenici has two goals: to find a paying summer internship, and to prove he has what it takes to become an editor on his school paper.
Then Jocelyn's father tells her their family restaurant may be going under, and all wishes are off. Because her dad has the marketing skills of a dumpling, it's up to Jocelyn and her unlikely new employee, Will, to bring A-Plus Chinese Garden into the 21st century (or, at least, to Facebook).
What starts off as a rocky partnership soon grows into something more. But family prejudices and the uncertain future of A-Plus threaten to keep Will and Jocelyn apart. It will take everything they have and more, to save the family restaurant and their budding romance.