INTERVIEW: Lee Durfey-Lavoie and Veronica Agarwal Explore Mental Health and Middle School in Just Roll With It

A young girl in a black skirt and orange top with light brown skin and black poufy pigtails walks towards the camera. She is wearing a slight smile and she is holding on to the straps of her backpack. Behind her are other children standing in front of lockers talking

Having a middle schooler myself and watching her navigate all the fun and exciting and overwhelming and frustrating things that come with busting into teenhood and preparing for high school makes Just Roll With It really hit home. The debut graphic novel from Lee Durfey-Lavoie and the second graphic novel for illustrator Veronica Agarwal, Just Roll With It is clearly a labor of love that explores the complexities of anxiety, mental health, family expectations, school, and growing up.

The story revolves around Maggie, who just wants to get through her first year in a new school and puts her faith in her D20 to get her through each day. As if dealing with bullies, trying to make friends, and choosing the right after-school clubs isn’t enough, there is also the rumored monster that lurks the school grounds. Everything would be just fine if Maggie rolls the right number, but what if she rolls a critical fail?

“The inspiration for the D20 was centered around a few key elements,” explains Agarwal. “It’s a physically small object, with a clear grading system for good and bad. Both of these things pair well with anxiety — something small that has a huge hold on you, and a clear good and bad answer in situations that don’t have a clear negative or positive.” But Maggie’s 20-sided die isn’t just a one off RPG reference. A story within a story comes to life through, Chosen: Adventures in Therendia (CAT), the popular roleplaying game that inspires Maggie’s imagination — and sometimes her worst fears. CAT plays an intricate part in Maggie’s life, from being a regularly scheduled family event, the medium through which she eventually makes new connections, and how she explores her own identity and learns to trust herself.

Aside from the use of the die, Maggie’s anxiety manifests in many ways, including moments of OCD, and becoming overwhelmed by her surroundings or her own thoughts, which Agarwal depicts through dark scribbles closing in on Maggie. The heaviness of these moments is palpable and may be relatable for many. Both Durfey-Lavoie and Agarwal struggled with undiagnosed mental illness earlier in their lives, and wanted to share a story that could help others who might be struggling in a similar way.

“For me the simple fact of knowing mental illnesses like this existed and could affect me would have made a world of difference,” explains Durfey-Lavoie. “I thought these feelings of fear and anxiety and depression were just normal. That everybody lived like this and was just better at dealing with it than I was. Really Just Roll With It for me, was written so somebody else doesn’t have to go through that.”

Agarwal says that she had an easier time discussing mental health with friends and family growing up and learned a lot online — “for better or worse.” Her motivation for this project is to provide “a positive resource for people who maybe don’t have those outlets, and don’t know where to start looking.

One of my favourite aspects of the story is Maggie’s family life. She has older siblings who have paved the way for her, but she is uncertain of whether or not she is smart enough to walk in their footsteps. Her parents have high expectations of her, but are also very supportive. The problem is that they don’t necessarily understand what Maggie is going through. In contrast, Maggie’s siblings are more intuitive to her needs when it comes to mental health and have conversations with her parents to help them see beyond their own biases and expectations.

This depiction was important to Durfey-Lavoie because he wanted the portrayal to be realistic. “It’s not anything against Maggie’s parents, who both love her and want her to be okay,” he explains. “It just made a little more sense to me that Maggie’s sisters, who she is a little closer to and who have been through their own shares of struggle, would be able to be on a more similar wavelength.”

Agarwal’s previous work is Alexis Vs. Summer Vacation which was written by Sarah Jamila Stevenson, but for Durfey-Lavoie, this was a first time adventure. The pair share their creative process through humorous backmatter that includes the shocking confession that Durfey-Lavoie wrote the majority of the book on his phone. “There might have been a few pages written on an old laptop Veronica gifted me,” he admits. “I knew Just Roll With It was going to be a massive undertaking; I needed a way to kind of ‘contain’ it. However there were some silly challenges I put myself through, like having to close the working document and open the outline to check something then reopen the working document, for one.” Still, there’s something to be said about just pulling your phone out of your pocket to write a page or two on the go.

Just Roll With It will be available on December 14, but, the creative team informs us, a sequel is already written and in the midst of inking. “That was done on my laptop,” confirms Durfey-Lavoie, “which will probably be how I finish most of my projects, though I will say the sequel was originally jotted down in my notes app so my phone isn’t completely sidelined.”

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.

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