Ahoy! My name is Ben (A.K.A. CLANTOONS) and I’m the author and illustrator of the NARWHAL & JELLY BOOKS.
Both Narwhal and Jelly have been swimming about in my brain for quite awhile. I first came up with them in 2012 (four years before the first book was published). I suppose the idea for the book started with the drawing you can see on the left. It was the very first time I had ever drawn a narwhal. I had recently gotten the book POLAR OBSESSION by Paul Nicklen which has some really striking and captivating photos of narwhals. I have to confess I didn’t really know about narwhals before that book. I had one of those moments when I saw those pictures for the first time where I found myself in complete awe of the world we live in (I love those moments). That such a creature exists seemed fantastic beyond belief. Right from that moment Narwhal’s character had started to form in my mind. Such a remarkable creature had to have a personality to match.
That first drawing was soon followed by more narwhal drawings and often those narwhals were accompanied by other sea life such as whales, crabs, and . . . jellyfish. I would fill pages with these creatures. I began to draw aquatic creatures even more then I drew monsters, aliens, and robots (and I draw oodles of monsters, aliens, and robots).
I felt certain pretty much from the get-go that I HAD to make a book featuring a narwhal. But finding out what that book would look like was at times like trying to chase that elusive whale, Moby Dick.
The first story idea I explored was that of a little narwhal getting separated from its narwhal pod during a storm and finding itself in new waters. In that story idea the little narwhal found all sorts of new creatures and ends up finding a brand new home and pod amongst these new creatures. Sound familiar? There are definitely elements of this first story idea in the first two comics of NARWHAL: UNICORN OF THE SEA! But my first attempts at telling the story didn’t work. The little narwhal in those manuscripts spent far too much time being lost, lonely, and sad . . . that didn’t feel right. I had an okay premise but Narwhal’s character needed that sparkle of the fantastic which I had experienced when I saw those photos by Paul Nicklen.
I found that sparkle for Narwhal when waiting in line for ice cream. It was at Molly Moon’s on Capitol Hill in Seattle, WA which pretty much always has a long line and that means lots of time to think sweet thoughts, especially with the smell of freshly made waffle cones on the air. It is the waffle cones that did it. The cones reminded me of unicorn horns which made me think of the narwhal’s tusk-tooth. It occurred to me for some reason that it would be funny if the tusk-tooth was removable. What if Narwhal had lost it? A book idea started to rapidly take shape in my mind and in that new idea Narwhal was no longer sullen, but a character filled with unabashed joy. I won’t give too much away about that story idea as I think it will find a home in a future Narwhal and Jelly book, but upon going home that day filled with delicious ice-cream and an even more tasty idea . . . I sat down and drew an entire picture book mock-up. And then I storyboarded another. And then another. Both Narwhal and Jelly had come to life for me . . . Narwhal’s happy-go-lucky, unalterable optimism and Jelly’s no-Nonsense attitude. This is part of one of those storyboards:
Soon I was trying to find a publisher for a series of picture books about Narwhal and Jelly. I thought I had it all figured out. BUT one publisher after another responded with pretty much this: “we like the characters and humor, but the stories don’t have enough story to them to be worth publishing as full picture books.” One editor, Tara Walker with Tundra Books whom I had worked on my first picture book VOTE FOR ME! with, said that she liked seeing the stories all together, that somehow the sum equaled more than the parts. Tara proposed a longer picture book with multiple stories. I resisted at first and by the time I had come around Tundra Books was no longer certain about that approach. I decided to let Narwhal and Jelly go for awhile. I came back to them about a year later.
I hadn’t stopped drawing the duo. I had continued to draw them for fun and come up with more story ideas for them. But none of the stories I came up with had traditional story arcs. The plot lines were all a bit off-the-wall and somewhat comic-like. That felt right to me and I had become convinced that a book with multiple Narwhal & Jelly stories was the way to go.
I made a rough mock-up of how I thought the book should look and pitched it once more. Those publishers (including Tundra) I showed the new and improved (in my opinion) NARWHAL & JELLY to were uncertain of the format. It was a bit like a graphic novel, a bit like a picture book, and definitely something that would be hard to find the right shelf for because there wasn’t a lot quite like it. But in the end, Tara Walker and Tundra Books decided to take a chance.
The look of the artwork was a struggle for me. I had been drawing oodles of narwhals and jellyfish, but I had the strange habit of putting the flippers of the narwhal low down on the narwhal’s body. By the time I realized I was doing this and that it looked pretty odd, I had already drawn part of the first book and had to go back and move the flippers up. Also, by the time I finished drawing the book, which is twice the size of a typical picture book, I found I had become more confident as I went along and ended up needing to redraw a third of the book so that it would match up.
I keep reminding myself that many of the comics I love such as PEANUTS started out looking a fair bit different then they do now. Change and growth are natural! In SUPER NARWHAL AND JELLY JOLT (the second book), you’ll see that the characters have continued to grow and evolve. Not in huge ways. Some things are probably only really noticeable to me. But it’s amazing how a few simple lines can say a lot and how small changes eventually make for big ones. I like that!
Anyways, that is a bit about how Narwhal & Jelly came to be! Thanks for reading and welcome to the pod!