Narwhal’s Otter Friend – Ben Clanton, Tundra Books, 2019
If you are a narwhal, you’re lucky enough to have the evolutionary fluke of a single tusk, making you look like an aquatic unicorn, maybe friends with a mermaid or a dragon. In fact, your best friend is sensitive jellyfish, who, in this latest Narwhal adventure from Ben Clanton, is friended by a clever little otter. Maybe the otter is sincere in his excitement about meeting a narwhal: “Wowee Wow! I’ve always wanted to meet a Narwhal!” but Jelly is skeptical. He raises an eyebrow and asks, “Seriously?” Readers learn, along with Narwhal, Otter, and Jelly, that they can share friendship and have a “funtastic time,” even surfing down a rainbow. They also learn factual information about otters, and take a wild detour to meet the superheroes Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick. Ben Clanton has both written and illustrated this inventive and zany trip through the sea, and has produced an entertaining tale that manages to replicate the way young children associate events and feelings.
Clanton’s characters are simple and childlike with antic expressions. He uses black, white, gray, and blue. Comic strip formats alternates with full-page pictures and two-page spreads. Then, when you least expect it, an informational section of “Otterly Aww-some Facts” appears. Kid may be surprised and pleased to learn that otters “trap bubbles in their fur creating a ‘blanket’ of air,” and that jellyfish actually glow in the dark.
Later, as when Dorothy leaves Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, there is a segment about the superhero foods in bright colors, combining photographs with the colored pencil, watercolor, and ink of the other images. For all its seeming digressions, Narwhal’s Otter Friend relates a consistent story about Jelly’s distress and being displaced by Otter. At one point, Jelly determines that he will approach other friends to make up for his threatened loss. A turtle, shark, even a rock, seem like alternatives to being cast aside in favor of the adventurous and manic Otter. Children will relate to Jelly’s frustration, and we feel reassured along with him when Narwhal tells Jelly that no adventure is complete without their friendship.
The most unusual aspect of Narwhal is the way that Clanton crams so many different elements into the book while maintaining a clear and consistent story line, suffused with high energy and wild imagination. Children and adult readers will agree with Jelly that it “does sound like an amazing adventure.” And it is.