Versatile Fun with Narwhal and Jelly

Blankie (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Bubbles (A Narwhal and Jelly Board Book) – written and illustrated by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021

Not all board books are created equal.  Different young children prefer different ones, but Ben Clanton‘s newest incarnation of his Narwhal and Jelly series in this format has promising features. They are square and medium sizes, not for babies but for kids old enough to listen to the story. Their characters, a narwhal and his jellyfish best friend, follow a logic familiar to toddlers and young kids.  The pictures are bright and simple, almost as if children could create them themselves, although, of course, the concept of the books is from the mind of a talented author and artist who relates to their perspective.  They are about two subjects close to children’s hearts: the simplicity of a beloved blanket, and the almost supernatural fun of bubbles.

The plot of Blankie starts with an obvious but key observation: blankets are not merely meant for the limited uses of adults. Narwhal and Jelly seem to float against a white background, and they take off on a fight of make believe.  A blanket might have a mundane use, yucky to adults but not to kids, as an improvised way to blow your nose.

At the other end of the spectrum, it is a hat, a flag, or a picnic blanket.The picnic scene includes another popular verbal entertainment: puns. “I like this idea a waffle lot!” proclaims Narwhal. Parents and teachers know that, even when kids don’t initially get the humor behind a particular phrase like this, once you explain to them they find it hilarious. 

Of course, draping a blanket around your shoulders instantly converts you into a superhero. The best part of Narwhal and Jelly’s friendship is that each one has total support and admiration from the other.  Jelly’s sincere compliment, “That cape is super great!” is the equivalent of a starred review.  Naturally, a book about blankets would not be complete without their most reassuring use, for restful companionship. Under the blanket together, the two friends each grasp the top of it, narwhal with his flippers and Jelly with his tentacles, drawn as Clanton’s signature single black line.  Their normally wide-open eyes are black ovals; asleep, their eyes are an inverted letter “U”s. Clanton knows how children perceive the world.

Another popular source of fascination for kids are rainbows.  They make an appearance In Bubbles, where the friends have fun with objects that are a bit more ephemeral than a sturdy blanket. In fact, the disappearance of a bubble sometimes causes some anxiety, as in the phrase, “You burst my bubble,” which Jelly utters in one moment of frustration. But the rest of the book involves just relaxing and joyous exploration. A bubble which refracts light becomes, in Narwhal’s imagination, a rainbow, and Jelly agrees.

Even the word itself is composed of multicolored letters, joining text and picture in a way which kids understand is the whole point of picture books.  Even a simple blue bubble attains the status of “the most bubbliest bubble I’ve ever seen,” because redundant language doesn’t strike kids the way it does adults.  Superlative, redundant, or simply “unbelieva-bubble” all delight children.

In the Middle Ages, the narwhal’s tusk was sometimes thought to be the elusive unicorn’s horn.  Ben Clanton has captured that sense of magic, along with zany humor and verbal play, in his Narwhal and Jelly books for older children. Now little kids can enter this universe, where ordinary objects and their infinite uses form the backdrop to friendship.

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