MMGM and #IMWAYR: Just Roll With It, illustrated by Veronica Agarwal and written by Lee Durfey-Lavoie
I hope everyone is doing well! I know I already did this last week, but I have yet another movie to wholeheartedly recommend to you all—I just saw the Netflix original movie The Half of It, and I can confidently say that is is 100% a new favorite movie of mine! All the characters—Ellie, Paul, Aster, everyone—are so layered and so compelling, there's so much real-world insight into love and teenage awkwardness and small-town life, there's meaningful explorations of diversity, every single scene was made with a keen eye for what every single character is feeling in that moment, and the movie is cinematically just beautiful! I was seriously blown out of the water—it's definitely worth a watch!
And now for the review! I was going to post a different review in my backlog, but because I need to revise it and I don't want to deal with it today, I'm just going against my own schedule and posting this review today! I'm excited to show you all this wonderfully delightful and insightful new graphic novel, Just Roll With It, illustrated by Veronica Agarwal and written by Lee Durfey-Lavoie! (Usually, I credit the writer first, but I'm following the order used in the book.) (Also, fun fact about the creators—they're a couple!)
|Preview the illustrations on Amazon|
Let's start this review off with the publisher's description, and then hopefully, my review will fill in any remaining gaps:
As long as Maggie rolls the right number, nothing can go wrong...right?
Maggie just wants to get through her first year of middle school. But between finding the best after-school clubs, trying to make friends, and avoiding the rumored monster on school grounds, she’s having a tough time...so she might need a little help from her twenty-sided dice. But what happens if Maggie rolls the wrong number?
A touching middle-grade graphic novel that explores the complexity of anxiety, OCD, and learning to trust yourself and the world around you.
Y'all. Y'all. Y'all. This book...is SO GOOD!!! Oh my, I just want to squeal, and grin, and most of all, rant! So let's rant.
It's easy to say that a book is about this or that specific issue. And Just Roll With It definitely has a primary theme that leaps out at you—specifically, obsessive-compulsive symptoms. But an enormous part of what makes this story so delightful—and so effective!—is that it's about so much more. This book can get dark when it realistically tackles what it's like to struggle with mental health, and I'll talk more about that in a moment...but this book is also an absolutely delightful story of family, friends, and middle school, with an amount of sheer depth and craftsmanship that quite a few MG graphic novels simply cannot match—the style and skill remind me a lot of another graphic novel I loved, Allergic (I wonder if that book came to mind because its protagonist is also named Maggie, but whatever).
Let's talk about some of the lighthearted, delightful stuff in this book first. We've got Maggie, and she is one of those book protagonists who just worms her way right into your heart—I mean, wow! Maggie obviously has things she struggles with or needs to work through, but she is such a clever, smart, and loving individual that you can't help but root for her 110%. Maggie is always ready to get absorbed in a fantasy novel, to raise her hand and participate in her favorite classes at school (like science), or to become immersed in a game of her favorite RPG, CAT (which is a lot like Dungeons & Dragons, from the little I know about that game).
And speaking of Maggie's greatness, we need to talk about Clara. Just Roll With It does an excellent job of capturing the awkwardness of making friends in middle school, but it also gives us a break and lets Maggie connected with another student, Clara, right away. And Maggie and Clara have one of the most delightful friendships I've ever seen. I mean, there's self-disclosure, there's compassion and comforting one another, there's standing up for one another, there are surprise gifts—gifts, I tell you! And it's not imbalanced at all—both Maggie and Clara are completely ready to be there for one another, to have fun with each other but to also have the hard conversations when they're necessary. The skill with which Maggie and Clara's relationship is developed in the story, and the numerous chances for their relationship and dynamic to shine through, both set this friendship apart as one of the most powerful I've seen recently—Maggie and Clara are proof that kids might be better at having deep, meaningful relationships than teens or adults!
So Maggie (and Clara) are awesome. And I want to say before I forget, part of why it matters that Maggie is so awesome, that she is smart and kind enough not to make the ridiculous decisions that so many MG protagonists would make, that she could literally challenge readers to do a thing or two (or ten) better in their own lives and personal relationships...part of why all that matters is that it would be easy to define Maggie another way. It would be easy to mark her down as the "OCD girl," the girl who rolls the weird die to figure out what to do next. (Oh, and if you're thinking that she's going to make tons of horrible choices because of that die, they do tend to fudge the rolls a little bit for convenience's sake, thank goodness—and sometimes she just might be strong enough to ignore what the die says...)
As a person with diagnosed OCD, I was astounded by the detail and accuracy of Maggie's symptoms—the feeling of frustration when the compulsion makes you do things you don't want to do, but you have no choice...the connection to physical objects and repetitive behaviors (Maggie's "hello, house!" ritual reminded me a lot of my own nervous knock-on-wood rituals)...the "magical thinking," as it's known, where you feel like your compulsion is preventing something awful from happening, even though you know logically they couldn't possibly be related except by coincidence...even the moments where you personify an inanimate object and don't want it to suffer (I have literally been talking about that in therapy so much lately). You wouldn't expect such a powerful look at these symptoms in such a lighthearted book...and yet here we are.
But what's so, so powerful about Maggie's struggle is that she also deals with stigma. When I was a little kid, I thought people with mental health conditions were dangerous, and strange, and other, and I knew I could never be part of that group...and then I was diagnosed. And Maggie struggles with that too—she struggles not only with people discounting her fears (which are still her fears) as irrational, but with the common idea that her entire self must be broken, and bad. And what's so powerful about how Maggie is depicted is that she defies every one of those stereotypes. She loves her family, and learns cool facts, and reads books, and steps into scary situations to help the people she cares about. Maggie is so clearly a kid who will grow up into an awe-inspiring adult that to discount her entire beautiful, delightful, stunning self because of her symptoms is clearly a ridiculous, despicable thing to do. And I hope every reader will take away from this story that people with mental health conditions don't just lose every last ounce of their rationality, their kindness, their minds. We're still people, and we still have inner worlds and outer demeanors as complex and lovely as anyone else.
So that's the big, heavy stuff. Now let's get back to the fun, lighthearted stuff! I'll quickly note that school in this story is depicted excellently. You've got unpleasant parts, like the bullies and the endless homework and the procrastinating on said homework (why does no one ever talk about that in books?). But you've also got delightful parts, like teachers who make you think, and wonderful fellow kids, and fun clubs, and entertaining texts between friends. And speaking of school, there's an excellent little subplot in this area that is quite interesting to see—though I'll leave the details for you to discover.
And what about family? Well, this book has quite a profound and delightful look at that too. Maggie lives in a big family—she has two parents, two older sisters (Jamie and Eli), and both of their partners, all under one roof. And whether it's family dinners after school, car rides home with older sister Eli and her girlfriend Alex (hooray for LGBTQ+ representation!), or even quiet time in Maggie's room, we see quite a bit of Maggie's wonderful family and home life. (I especially appreciated that we learn some details about her siblings' interests and hobbies too, rather than them just existing to further the plot.) There's also a little bit of exploration of comparing oneself to siblings, and of parents having to learn how to best support their kids, both of which are done quite meaningfully. It's all so well done, and just adds another layer of joy to this joyous story!
Let me mention two more quick things I loved about Just Roll With It before I conclude. One is Maggie's love of RPGs in particular. Beyond the obvious cleverness of how Maggie's love of RPGs is tied into her obsessions via the 20-sided die, and beyond the obvious joy of having book characters who I would affectionately call "nerds" (I definitely fall into said category as well—*gestures at blog*), it's actually really awesome to see the way that Maggie connects to RPGs personally. We see the way that RPGs allow Maggie and her friends to escape into a different world, one where they can put on fun personas and be courageous and brave, regardless of what real life looks like for them (honestly, I had a moment as I was reading where I thought, "That sounds cool—maybe I should try Dungeons & Dragons...?"—and then I remembered I'm already drowning in hobbies as is). And we even get to see Maggie and her friends eventually take the courage they feel during gameplay and actually use it in the real world! It was really fascinating to see how powerful an effect these games can have on people's self-perception and self-esteem, and I definitely have a lot more admiration for the games themselves now that I've read this story!
And one last thing: the art style in this book is awesome! While I wouldn't say this book is "visually arresting" like some fancy graphic novels, Veronica Agarwal's art is absolutely squee-worthy, delightful, and skillfully executed. The facial expressions always match the emotions of the scenes; the flat, clear, and colorful style makes the panels super-fun but also super-easy to interpret; the characters themselves are so ridiculously adorable that I can't even believe it; and clever visual metaphors are used to depict Maggie's obsessive-compulsive thoughts and feelings. The art is as skillfully done as the writing in this delightful book!
Just Roll With It really does have something for everyone. It combines the middle-school fun and excitement of Click and its sequels, the interpersonal nuances (especially within family) of Allergic, and the truly insightful and realistic look at mental health conditions of Guts—and yet this book has a magic all its own too! I would already have been impressed by this story's look at obsessive-compulsive symptoms, but Just Roll With It's refusal to become defined by this issue, and its insistence to remain a fun, exciting, delightful tale of an eleven-year-old girl being totally awesome, is what makes it a truly exceptional story, and one worth picking up if you like stories that aren't just deep, but ultimately fun too!
My rating is: Really good!
My rating for the graphic novel-averse is: 4!