Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness – by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2021
Narwhal and Jelly are back again, just in time to substitute teach for a school of fish with a teacher who is under the weather. As always, Ben Clanton’s combination of one creature of almost mythic stature (narwhal), with another sometimes thought of as something of a pest (jellyfish), contradict most of their stereotypes. Narwhal is bold and funny, Jelly a modest sidekick who plays along. They work together, using a high-energy and multidisciplinary approach, from math to recess.
While the plot is more or less linear, there are so many ingredients that the passage of time is not the main point. These include jokes, puns, alliteration, “Fun Facts,” “Science Squad,” ambitious vocabulary (“delectable, palatable, toothsome”), and more. By the end of the book, (“fin, concluded, a wrap, fini), readers will have learned about seahorses, how to divide a waffle, and how to say goodbye to an irreplaceable substitute teacher in several languages.
Narwhal and Jelly’s students are all good-natured; there is no taunting of the dreaded substitute teachers. Narwhal admits his complete lack of experience in the classroom to Jelly, but that doesn’t present much of an obstacle. The fish students learn about science, math, comic book art, as well as the ethics of sending their sick teacher a warm and appreciative note. Finally, they have to regretfully tell Narwhal that the school day has ended.
The note to Mr. Blowfish, out with a bad cold, includes a copy of their full-color adventure, “Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick.” Readers familiar with earlier Narwhal and Jelly books will remember that these sequences appear in the middle of the story, with a brighter color palette from the “real world” of the main characters. Adults will enjoy the wry comment on creating fiction; Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick on no more improbably than a narwhal novice teacher. For kids, it’s just delightful to turn the page and find a waffle wearing a bright red superhero mask.
Narwhal’s School of Awesomeness has the right combination of frenetic pace and reassuring characters. Narwhal and Jelly are kind and supportive to one another. When Narwhal gently taps Jelly for one more game of tag, we know that no one will get hurt, and everyone will learn something. The wingspan of an albatross is useful information, and so is how to express gratitude to your teacher in four different languages.