April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Ben Clanton on “Narwhal, Unicorn of the Sea”

1612-pop-clanton-qaIt seems like narwhals are having a moment. Why a narwhal for a main character?
Narwhals do seem to be making a splash lately in kid lit (Wendell the Narwhal by Emily Dove and Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima) but also in general. I’ve been blown away by how many people have told me recently that their favorite animal is a narwhal or that their three-year-old loves narwhals. When I was three, I didn’t even know that narwhals existed!

A narwhal makes for a fun character in part because it occupies this rarefied space in which it seems mythical and mysterious. My narwhal has a personality to match how I view narwhals. Narwhal is extraordinary. Actually, he is an odd main character because he never really changes. Narwhal is happy-go-lucky and optimistic pretty much all the time and doesn’t really have any lows or much character growth. It could even be argued that Jelly (Narwhal’s jellyfish friend) is the main character of the books. Jelly is a much more squishy character who definitely changes and grows.

cb-gn-clanton-narwhalunicornoftheseaThere are so many quirky details in your book. Where do they come from?
Fish sticks, I don’t know why, but I whaley turtley love off-the-wall humor, silliness, and puns. Coincidentally, so does Narwhal! I suppose the general whimsicalness of the book is mostly guided by Narwhal. Narwhal isn’t one to take things too seriously, and so while the stories deal with some big topics, it is all approached in a lighthearted way.

So many titles for kids focus on duos. Why are pairs—especially opposite pairs—so appealing?
Some of my favorite stories definitely feature odd pairs! Frog and Toad come to mind, too, and also Jeeves and Wooster, Sherlock and Watson, and Toot and Puddle. I think why these sorts of friendships are appealing has to do with the nature of friendship. Friendships…are fantastic (connecting is a huge part of being human), but they are also difficult. Generally I find friendships are even more difficult for opposite personalities and temperaments, like that of Narwhal (happy-go-lucky and confident) and Jelly (no-nonsense and unsure). Seeing from someone else’s point of view is a skill, and compromise, too, takes work. And because being friends with someone very different is much more challenging than being friendly with someone similar, the result is more rewarding.

This is just the beginning of a fun new series. What’s next for this intrepid duo?

The next book is Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt (May 2017), in which Narwhal decides to become a superhero. Jelly, as usual, is not so sure about this whole superhero idea, especially because it appears Narwhal lacks any sort of superpower. The format for this second book is similar to the first, with three stories and some extras, including a couple pages of facts. Also, I’m happy to report that a certain waffle and strawberry make an appearance in the second volume, and I suspect that duo will be popping up in future “Narwhal and Jelly” books, too.

This article was published in School Library Journal's December 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.



  1. I’m a huge fan of Ben Clanton’s work, and the Narwhal series are outstanding. Or should I say, outswimming…