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The Gordon School

Meeting Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie

Student newspaper talks with creators about family, creativity, thoughtful writing and mental health

Veronica Agarwal and Lee Durfey-Lavoie, the author-illustrator team behind Just Roll With It, are two of the many creators who are on campus this week during the GCA Book Fair, talking about their work and leading workshops for students. 

Agarwal and Durfey-Lavoie’s book Just Roll With It is a middle grade graphic novel about a girl beginning middle school who is facing typical sixth grade challenges as well as obsessive compulsive disorder and a neighborhood monster. 

Upon their arrvial today, they sat down with the fifth and sixth grade newspaper this afternoon for an in-depth interview about family, creativity, thoughtful writing and mental health.

How did you get into writing and drawing?

Lee: I have been obsessed with writing ever since I was a little kid. When I was in first grade if anyone would ask me what I wanted to be, it would always be a writer.

I had a teacher in first grade who really taught me the wonders of writing and how influential my voice could be. I wrote poems and short stories throughout all of my school years. After high school, I went to Roger Williams University for creative writing.

I dropped out but still continued to write, then I met Veronica and we found out we worked very well together and everything just clicked.

Veronica: I always really liked drawing, I’ve always been drawing. I fell in love with manga and anime during middle school, I think that really influenced me.

I loved making comics throughout my childhood and I wanted to go college for illustration. Throughout that I felt like my art style to seem like it fit better with cartoons and it just worked out really well with creating Just Roll With It.

The idea of Just Roll With It

Veronica: Originally we made the story first. We knew the story we wanted to tell but we just didn’t have a name for it. So we were working on our cover and our friend suggested Just Roll With It and it just worked out so well with the plot and Maggie’s character.

Lee: The actual story is definitely a combo of both of us. Just Roll With It was published in December of 2021.

Veronica: It was supposed to be published December of 2020, but COVID hit and it got put on hold.

When I first had the idea for the book I was like “Oh, well I could make this but I don’t know enough about the issues in it.”

But then, within the primitive ideas of the book, after doing more research, I kinda realized that it was something I related to when doing research on Maggie’s OCD. I think in like a list of “Textbook OCD Symptoms” you see OCD symptoms as picky eaters, and hand washing. It’s kinda something that I realized: “I know people with OCD have these strong preferences but I just kinda dislike this certain thing.” Then I thought again because I realized that it isn’t just a question of liking or disliking. My body is legitimately against some behaviors and my body is literally telling me not to do them.”

One of the things I noticed when reading Just Roll With It was how complex and real the characters seemed. Can you talk about your characters how you make them feel like a person and not just a drawing or words on a page?

Lee: I really really try to do that and I’ve always hated it when I read a book and a character was only doing something because the plot needed them to.

I’ve always tried really hard to make the character feel like they have a life outside of the written pages.

I try to almost play twenty questions with my characters, Find out which color they like, their favorite food. For Maggie specifically, I’ve always imagined her favorite dish being aloo gobi, which is an Indian dish of potatoes and cauliflower. I figured it would be her favorite food because her mom would make it and it would comfort her. Like a soft warm comfort food.

Veronica: Do you think that JUST because it’s your favorite food?  Little stuff like that adds depth.

Lee: Like their inconveniences are important. Like any thing that would come up with a different character was important to include, like when Maggie’s sister and her partner were too busy watching a chess tournament to be with her.

Which character do you relate to the most?

Veronica: Probably Maggie for me. It was interesting for me because we’ve done two books about this. Just Roll With It is like my baby. It’s centered around my anxiety and my fears and hopes.

Lee: Definitely, for me, Maggie in this book. But also Maggie’s oldest sister. As the oldest of eight children, I really relate to her wanting to protect Maggie. Almost any issues we had growing up or presently would be like ‘yup into the book.”

Lee: I don’t really think I knew what a disorder was till like high school. Building a book targeted to a younger audience was interesting.

I wanted to build a book that my younger siblings, or a younger kid could pick up and be like “Oh okay, I understand myself, or my friend, or my kid better now.”

I do like to think that the world has gotten better than it was since I was in high school. I do think you hear about mental health more often. Like if you’re always stressed out or always on the verge of a breakdown, it’s good to have someone to talk to about it.

When I saw a therapist after high school I just felt so much lighter having a diagnosis. But still in the book we wanted Maggie not to just care about just getting a diagnosis.

Veronica: When I was growing up, in the era of Tumblr.com, I went to my therapist and asked, ‘Hey can you diagnose me with anxiety?” With some people, she said it seems they seem like they can only see themselves as their diagnosis, and we didn’t want Maggie to reflect that narrative.

Things like mental health struggles thrive in darkness. If you shine a light on it then it gets easier. Like it’s difficult if you have multiple disorders shoved into a box. Like with me addressing and giving terms to talk about the symptoms was very important, so I could have peace of mind.

Sink or Swim, their new book

Lee: So Sink or Swim exists in the same universe as Just Roll With It. On the cover Maggie is in full focus, but the book introduces three other main characters.

The story focuses on one: on Tye and his story on weight. He was the captain of the swim team and he broke his arm so he felt like his whole world fell out from under him. He’s worried about his friends and about how they’ll think of him, because since he broke his arm he hase’t been able to swim and he’s gained some weight.  He just doesn’t like the way he looks. There’s a little more to it but that won’t spoil anything,

Veronica: We’re pitching one new book right now. Pitching is almost like writing a book report on a book you want to write.

Lee: We have one that’s pretty close to my heart about a little alien fish girl living with an older woman in a small town of other little alien fish people. It’s very Studio Ghibli if you will.

Drawing the characters

Veronica: So when the actual graphic novel process begins, Lee writes the scripts then I do thumbnails,which are really rough drawings. But since I draw so often I get a sense of characters really quickly instead of doing ‘character sheets’ like some comic artists do. I’ve been drawing Maggie for years so it came very naturally. I often struggle with drawing something to look the same each time, so I took a tip from Steven Universe. The people working on it said that Steven is always shorter than Amethyst and Amethyst is always shorter than Pearl. So I applied that to my drawing, so Clara is always taller than Maggie. After that it was pretty easy to get the drawings down. When cartooning, you’re drawing a lot of panels on a page so keeping things simple is really important. It can still portray emotions and importance with less.

 

Thank you to Lee Durfey-Lavoie and Veronica Argawel for being such an awesome interview team!

 

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