It’s 2009. A Queen’s University student named Zoe sits on a bunk bed in a New York City hostel. She stares at her phone, unsure of what to do. It’s the nineteen-year-old’s first time in New York and her first time on a trip alone with her friends. She’s there for her spring break, with Dani—whom she’s known since high school—and Fiona, a new addition to the friend group. Zoe and Dani have envisioned this trip for years. They imagined they would sightsee, play at being adults, and reconnect after months apart at their respective universities.

What they didn’t plan for were the complications a third person might introduce to their dynamic. From the day they arrive, a romance sparks between Fiona and Zoe. They’ve mostly kept this from Dani, stealing away for moments alone and holding hands when her back is turned. But the night before Dani disappears, they hook up in their hostel with Dani in the room. Now Dani is gone, and she didn’t leave a note. As Zoe spirals, Fiona rolls her eyes.

“You have your phone,” Fiona says flatly. She recommends sending a text.

Zoe puts her head in her hands and groans. “But if I turn on roaming, won’t that cost a million dollars?”

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, who wrote Roaming together, say the graphic novel’s title is partially a joke. While the word usually evokes the idea of exploration, for anyone travelling abroad, roaming comes with charges. The tension between these two things—freedom and consequences—is central to the story. As these three young women explore an unknown city with a new-found sense of agency, they’re forced to learn that there are still boundaries to what they should and shouldn’t do—and pushing those boundaries comes with repercussions.

Mariko explains that nineteen is a potent and transitional age. “I think we’re on the lip of adulthood here,” she says. The push and pull between childhood and adulthood is part of what makes the dynamics in Roaming so complicated and messy.

Roaming is not the first coming-of-age story Mariko and Jillian have worked on together. The cousins—originally from Toronto and Calgary respectively—published Skim in 2008 and the widely acclaimed This One Summer in 2014, which received a Governor General’s Award and was named a Caldecott Honor Book. The three graphic novels all share themes of friendship, girlhood, sexuality, and growing up.

While their previous books have been stories about children and teenagers, Roaming is their first foray into storytelling about adult characters for adult audiences. This means themes like queerness and young adulthood are presented with more freedom both by the writers and the characters themselves. Away from the restraints of school, their parents, and their hometowns, Zoe, Dani, and Fiona are faced with an almost immobilizing set of possibilities. They have to weigh their actions against the potential consequences. Is it worth smoking in the hostel when you were told not to? Or using a fake ID in the bar?

Behind the scenes, the way the Tamakis collaborate has also shifted. In the past, their roles were divided rather neatly: Mariko wrote the sharp, sparse scripts while Jillian created the art, rendering the expressive characters and expansive backgrounds in her signature minimalist colour palette. This time around, the writing process was looser and more collaborative. Jillian explains that she was the one who came up with the initial premise, and the pair shaped the story together.

“I asked if she wanted to work on it, and then we kind of just passed the script back and forth like a volleyball,” Jillian laughs. “I am curious if close readers of our work will be able to tell that.”

Roaming is Jillian and Mariko’s first collaboration in nearly a decade. When This One Summer was published nine years ago, it was widely praised by reviewers and readers alike, becoming a New York Times bestseller. Its success might be attributed to the fact that, like Roaming, so much of it feels recognizable—the story about friendship and youth is one most readers can see themselves in. But This One Summer also quickly climbed the American Library Association’s charts of most-challenged books and was banned from some school libraries for its inclusion of LGBTQ2+ characters, profanity, and sexual themes. What followed was a free-speech protest, international media coverage, and a joint statement by Jillian and Mariko. The series of events highlighted how brutal and arbitrary book banning can feel and raised questions about what the banning of diverse stories means for impressionable, diverse audiences.

“We worry about what it means to define certain content, such as LGBTQ content, as being inappropriate for young readers,” Mariko and Jillian wrote in their statement. “Which implicitly defines readers who do relate to this content, who share these experiences, as not normal, when really they are part of the diversity of young people’s lives.”

In Roaming, the characters’ queerness and sexuality are displayed more explicitly than in the Tamakis’ previous work. Last year saw the highest number of attempted book bans in the United States since the ALA began tracking such efforts over two decades ago. Book challenges nearly doubled in 2022 compared to 2021, which held the previous record. Queer stories are disproportionately targeted: over half of 2022’s challenged books feature LGBTQ2+ themes, with a graphic memoir called Gender Queer topping the list. The ALA has found that books about race are also disproportionately impacted. Since Roaming is being published in a landscape more hostile toward queer and BIPOC stories than we’ve seen in decades, there’s a chance it risks being banned too.

When asked whether the banning of This One Summer influenced how the pair approached Roaming, they had a simple answer: not really. Mariko stressed that they aren’t writing books specifically to be inflammatory or subversive: they’re simply writing what they know. Mariko says it’s hard to think of potential book bans when the parts of her stories that are being challenged are drawn from her own experiences. In telling the stories of queer, Asian Canadian characters, the Tamakis are channelling elements of their lives.

“How can it even be a consideration when it’s you?” says Mariko.

The pair hopes readers can see pieces of themselves in the book, even if they aren’t exactly reflected by the story’s characters. Anyone who’s been nineteen can identify with Roaming’s overarching themes: the messiness of learning that the freedom of adulthood still has boundaries and that exploration has its limits.

Gabrielle Drolet
Gabrielle Drolet is a Montreal-based writer and cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail, the New Yorker, and more.