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Books How a cold call from a Canadian editor sparked a global children’s book sensation

It took Ben Clanton four years to turn his Narwhal and Jelly idea into a published book, but the series is now at four books and counting.

Tijana Martin

The Narwhal and Jelly publishing phenomenon started with an idea about a delightful friendship between a whale who is up for any adventure and a gelatinous sidekick who often raises his eyebrow in doubt about Narwhal’s ideas. But another dynamic duo, a human one, is the creative force that developed the Narwhal and Jelly juggernaut: a book series that has recently sold more than one million copies in print and foreign rights in 13 territories.

First, meet Ben Clanton. He’s the young man seated in a café in downtown Toronto. His prodigious imagination hides beneath his rectangular, black-rimmed glasses, a tweedy jacket and a shy smile. He lays out his background like a balance sheet. An American who lives in Seattle. Go figure - he studied anthropology and politics at university. In his first year at Williamette University in Salem, Ore., he volunteered to read picture books with children at a local library. “I found myself wondering, ‘Can I do something like that?’” the father of two says with a hint of childlike wonder. Could he write those books?

Turns out, he couldn’t. Not at first, anyway. He had loved to draw as a child, but had given it up when he was a young teenager. Friends reminded him of his early interest in drawing, so he took their advice and started illustrating his stories. Through his four years of college, he sent out book ideas. All were rejected. When he graduated, his wife gave him an ultimatum: You have one more year to keep trying to get published.

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That was when the other half of this success story made her appearance.

Tara Walker, now vice-president and publisher of Tundra Books, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Young Readers, was then an editor at Kids Can Press in Toronto. One day, she was searching for new talent by perusing a favourite blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, which routinely features illustrators and writers. “I saw Ben’s work and thought it was so fresh and funny and very childlike,” she says in a telephone interview. Walker had been with Kids Can her entire career at that point – for 15 years. “I’m a big believer in following my gut. But I have only contacted someone out of the blue like that maybe 10 times in my whole career.”

'I like the books because they talk about how everyone is special. In the 4th book with Otter, Jelly kind of felt left out because he didn’t have cool adventures like Otter did. And then, Narwhal told him that he could come with them to make him feel included.' – Ethan, 10

Penguin Random House

“She asked to see mock-ups,” Clanton remembers. “There are so many things I can pinpoint about my work that’s not good,” he says. “But lack of ideas is not one of them.” Still, none of the ideas he presented to Walker at that time was quite right for Kids Can. “But she gave me the option of speaking to her directly,” he says, cracking a smile.

For the next few months, he kept sending ideas to her until one finally struck a chord. “I had this idea because the 2012 [American] election was coming up,” he says. His book idea, Vote For Me, is a clever satire about politics in which an elephant and a donkey say mean and horrible things about each other on the campaign trail. It was his first book to be published – and before his wife’s one-year deadline.

In the years that followed, he wrote and illustrated several more children’s books – It Came In The Mail, The Table Sets Itself, Something Extraordinary, Rex Wrecks It, Boo Who?. At a conference about children’s literature, he met and acquired an agent, Marietta Zacker of Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency in New Jersey. As with many children’s illustrators and writers, his books were published by several different publishers (Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster). But he was still not sure his career could be financially viable. He and his wife had many lean years, he says. “Unless a book does pretty well, it’s hard to make much income from them. I was thinking maybe I should be doing something else, or maybe I should go back to school to study animation.”

But all through those years of publishing other books, he had a narwhal on the brain – and in his notebooks. In 2012, he had seen the creature in a photography book by wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen. “I have to confess my experience of narwhals was limited,” Clanton says. Ideas immediately swam around in his mind.

Soon after, he was standing in line for ice cream when Narwhal’s personality came to him. “I was getting a waffle cone,” he says. “And I was connecting the cone with the giant tooth/tusk Narwhal has, and all of a sudden it occurred to me, ‘What if this character was just as sweet and awesome and fun and different like a waffle cone and ice cream? What if this character was as excited about his day as I am when I’m about to share a scoop with a friend?’” That night, he came up with three Narwhal stories. The next day, he had four more story ideas. And then up popped Jelly. “You think of jellyfish as very squishy,” Mr. Clanton continues. “They’re made of 95 per cent water. They’re a gelatinous sort of creature, so you think of them having a squishy sort of personality to match. And I thought it would be funny if he had an exacting sort of personality to play against his formlessness.”

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Clanton’s agent sent out the Narwhal and Jelly book idea to several publishers. All rejected the idea. “Everyone’s response was pretty much the same,” he explains. “They said, ‘I like these characters but we’re not sure about the idea of Narwhal as the main character. We’re not sure narwhals are well known enough.’”

By that time, Walker had moved to Tundra Books. She wasn’t convinced about the Narwhal and Jelly book idea either, but she didn’t give up on it. “I loved the characters. They totally grabbed me. They’re so sweet and funny. Narwhals are very ‘of the moment’ now. But at the time, they were not in the collective consciousness. What I was struggling with a little bit was the format. The stories were a little slimmer. They had a shorter story arc. And I didn’t know if they would work as picture books.

'I like Narwhal stories and I have read them all! I also own them all! I love the illustrations because they are simple and cute. I could draw them myself if I wanted to. I like how the stories are about helping each other and how Narwhal and Jelly are such good friends. I also love how there is a fun fact page that teaches you about sea animals. The Narwhal stories always make me laugh!' – Oliver, 10

Penguin Random House

"I wasn’t sure he had completely found the stories yet.”

Clanton made some revisions. The back-and-forth continued for about two years as he juggled the project with other book ideas. At one point, Walker suggested putting three of the Narwhal stories in a graphic novel format. “And that sparked something for Ben and when he came back again, he had the idea of panels [like a comic book],” she says.“I really waffled [about the format],” Walker confesses. “But ultimately Ben’s vision guided me.”

It took four years from the time he first conceived of the Narwhal and Jelly books for the first one to be published in 2016. There are now four in the series, Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea, Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt, Peanut Butter and Jelly and Narwhal’s Otter Friend. In January, Clanton was signed for six more books – two more in the original series and four board books for younger children. The success includes merchandise deals for plush toys, lunch boxes, pencil cases and backpacks, as well as a film version currently under discussion.

“In my editorial relationship with Ben, I feel like I am Jelly to his Narwhal. He has all these great, superimaginative pie-in-the-sky ideas and I am kind of swimming along with my raised eyebrow, saying, ‘Really?’ But I remind myself that Narwhal is almost always right. I really do trust Ben,” Walker says.

Clanton and Zacker’s decision to go with a Canadian publisher for the U.S. market was risky, she points out. Along the way, before any contract was signed, some American publishers got involved. Zacker thought it would be a good idea to set up a co-publisher deal: an American publisher looking after the U.S. market and Tundra Books selling in Canada. But Tundra and the American publisher disagreed on how to develop the characters. “I felt [the American publisher] wanted to make the stories more didactic. And they would say, ‘We need to give Narwhal more of a growth arc.’ And I was thinking, ‘No, you don’t. It’s Jelly who is the foil for Narwhal. And it’s Jelly’s growth that we see,’” Walker says. “I really wanted to break this series out, and what I made the argument for with Marietta and Ben was for us to publish in both Canada and the U.S. because I felt that we could bring the books to market in the way that would most respect Ben’s vision.”

Tundra Books, the oldest publisher of children’s books in Canada, has published American authors before. “But this is our first book that really broke out in the U.S. in a big way,” Walker says. “Ben and Marietta had faith in us.” The popularity of the Narwhal series had caused more agents to approach Tundra not only in the U.S. market but internationally as well. “This success has taken us to a whole new level.”

For Clanton, the Narwhal and Jelly books have given him and his family of four financial security. About two-thirds of his year is spent thinking up Narwhal and Jelly ideas. “I think part of the appeal is that the longer format seems more advanced to kids, so it’s a nice bridge going from picture books to a chapter book,” he says, adding that as a child he struggled to read. “There’s a sense of accomplishment after they finish it.”

Clanton, 30, sits at the table like a big, well-mannered kid who will accept any question, calmly and methodically, chewing on it like a vegetable he has been told to eat. “My degree of silliness has survived,” he offers, with a small giggle, when asked whether his own children have affected his output. “But I am more serious as a parent because I worry about things.”

His eyes light up when he talks about Walker’s intuition about him. “Right from the onset of my career, Tara really got me. It’s incredible to have someone able to see where you are trying to go with something when it’s not fully realized.” His latest book, Narwhal’s Otter Friends, is dedicated to her.

“I’ve really seen him grow up,” she says. “Now he’s really comfortable in his own skin. I’ve seen him find his voice with Narwhal and Jelly. The biggest change is in his confidence.”

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At the end of Clanton’s busy day in Toronto, Walker asked him what he’d like to do. He had never been to the city. Someone suggested the aquarium. Sure! Clanton exclaimed. Walker raised an eyebrow. Really? And then off they went, side by side, for a look at creatures of the sea.




The Globe and Mail asked several children what they would like to ask Ben Clanton.

1. Can you have Narwhal meet another narwhal so they fall in love and get married and have cute narwhal kids?

I’m not shore yet if Narwhal will meet another narwhal in one of the books. But it has occurred to me that it would be whaley fun if Narwhal met a narwhal that loves pancakes. We’ll sea!

2. Is there going to be more of Otter in the next books?

Otty will certainly pop up in Otter, Narwhal and Jelly books, but may disappear for a while every now and then, as she is an explorer and always seeking new adventures.

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3. Will there be more of the Octopus, Puffer Fish, Turtle and Shark in the next book?

Pod-ssibly! Definitely brief appearances at the very least.

4. Will Otter ever become a super hero like in Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt?

A Super Pod I’d very much like to see happen!

5. Why are the stories so funny?

Garsh! Thank you! I’m happy you think they are! I suppose it has something to do with enjoying being seal-ly and living with a Narwhal in your head.

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'I like the funny words in the book like fintastic and otterly awesome.' – Genevieve, 8

Penguin Random House

6. What things inspire you that kids could gain inspiration from, too?

Nature and the fascinating creatures in this world! Playing drawing games, too, and doodling. Carry around a sketchbook is my biggest suggestion. Inspiration can be found all sorts of places! Narwhal’s personality was inspired by ice cream and a photograph by Paul Nicklen, for instance.

7. Why did you think of Narwhal as a super hero?

Narwhal lives life in a super sort of way, so I think it was only natural. Super-ness simply surrounds Narwhal!

8. Why did you make Narwhal the main character and not Jelly?

Ah! Great question! While Narwhal certainly gets the most attention, Narwhal is an odd main character because Narwhal doesn’t really change much. Narwhal is pretty much excited and happy all the time. Jelly doesn’t get the limelight so much, but is really already kind of the main character. Jelly changes and grows a lot as a character. Why does Narwhal get the spotlight then? With a personality as buoyant and sparkly as Narwhal’s, it is hard for it to be otherwise. But not to worry! I think Jelly will get the star treatment in a future book.

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9. Will you add more characters to your next Narwhal books?

There are oodles of more characters that I have in mind for future books such as the Merry Mermicorn, Allie and Ian, Wally and Russ, Dr. Remora, and hopefully a unicorn at some point, too.

10. Would you add some land animals to the next books?

There is a Narwhal and Jelly book I have been working on that involves going on land … Not entirely sure yet!

11. Do you like the sea and do you like learning about sea-related things?

My love for the ocean and the creatures in it is fathomless! Making the nonfiction sections in the Narwhal and Jelly books is one of my favourite parts. I think if I was to ever pursue another career, I’d be a marine biologist. The worlds within in the waters of this planet are a spectacular frontier filled with the most fascinating beings.

12. Do you have kids? Do they like your books?

I do indeed! I have a three-year-old son and an eleven-month-old daughter. My daughter hasn’t shown much interest in my books yet. My son likes for me to pretend to be Narwhal, Jelly, and Otty, and used to enjoy having me read the books but recently has stopped asking for them because he says they are “work." Hopefully that is temporary.

13. Did you always want to be a children’s book author?

It didn’t really occur to me as a kid that this was something I could do as a grown-up. And I really struggled with reading as a kid, so I think eight-year-old me would be very surprised by what thirty-year-old me is up to. I decided to start making book when I was in college. I was volunteering at an elementary school library and really enjoyed reading the picture books with students. I wondered … “Could I make something like that?” So I decided to try! And try and try and try.




‘Why did you like the Narwhal and Jelly books?’ Children respond!

“I like the books because they talk about how everyone is special. In the 4th book with Otter, Jelly kind of felt left out because he didn’t have cool adventures like Otter did. And then, Narwhal told him that he could come with them to make him feel included.”- Ethan, 10

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“Narwhal is goofy and highly adorable. He broke the cuteness meter. I love to read the books because I love Narwhal and Jelly and all of his friends.“ - Zoe, 11

“I like Narwhal because he eats waffles.” - Aubrey, 7

“I like the funny words in the book like fintastic and otterly awesome.” - Genevieve, 8

“I like Narwhal stories and I have read them all! I also own them all! I love the illustrations because they are simple and cute. I could draw them myself if I wanted to. I like how the stories are about helping each other and how Narwhal and Jelly are such good friends. I also love how there is a fun fact page that teaches you about sea animals. The Narwhal stories always make me laugh!” - Oliver, 10

“I like that Narwhal is always funny. He’s always excited about things. He does a lot of funny stuff, like in the second book, he wished on a starfish. I like how he wants to be a superhero. I learned things, too. Like the narwhals are the unicorns of the sea. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know jellyfishes can be blue.” - Esme, 9

“I just feel like they are comics. And it reminds me of my friends: how we all have a different personality but we still get along really well. Also, the sea is interesting because there are a lot of animals in it and I think it’s interesting when in class we learned about biomes and how natural disasters can affect the ocean. We need to not litter and pollute our environment because it effects people and animals in the water." - Khalil, 9

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