A jellyfish might make an odd friend for a narwhal, but not in the mind of Ben Clanton.
The narwhal is the main character in a series of children’s books by the Tacoma author.
“I’m first writing them for myself, the 7-year-old in me,” he said while digging in to a plate of waffles last week. “Which, there’s not a big difference than 29-year-old Ben.”
It should be noted the narwhal, like Clanton, has an appetite for waffles. Real narwhals are whales, notable for their single tusk-like tooth. They eat a diet of fish.
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Being a children’s book author seems like a natural for Clanton, but the journey has been long.
Growing up in Portland and Kalispell, Montana, Clanton struggled to read as a kid.
“I just couldn’t keep up,” Clanton said of reading in fourth grade. “I would just flip the page whenever anyone next to me flipped the page.”
He gravitated toward books with pictures.
Though Clanton drew as a kid, he fell out of it by middle school.
“It wasn’t until college when I started drawing again,” he said.
As a volunteer reader in an elementary school in 2007, Clanton found childrens’s books to be clever and noticed how kids responded to them.
He pursued degrees in anthropology and political science and was headed for a career in teaching, but he harbored a dream to become a children’s book author. At first, he just wanted to write.
“Then I got reminded by friends that I really liked to draw,” he said.
He submitted work to publishers. The rejection letters soon followed.
Finally, the logjam broke. Three of his books were published to modest success in 2012.
Clanton didn’t become a phenomenon until 2016 when his first Narwhal book, “Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea!” came out. The second, “Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt,” followed in 2017.
Clanton writes and draws in the Tacoma home he shares with wife Kelsey and a 2-year-old son.
His books are targeted for kids 6 to 9 but have older fans as well.
“It’s hit a larger age range than I expected,” he said.
The unconventional stories follow the happy-go-lucky narwhal and his jelly pal as they embark on adventures, like recruiting other sea life to form a pod of friends.
His stories have subtle lessons that don’t slow the whimsical story lines.
“If there’s a lesson it’s just more of a consequence of where the story goes,” Clanton said.
Why narwhals and waffles?
Though narwhals now inhabit his life, Clanton didn’t know much about the Arctic creature until he came across wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen’s book, “Polar Obsession.”
“I started doodling lots of narwhals in my sketch book,” he said. “But I was having a really hard time coming up with what the story about this narwhal would be, who this narwhal is.”
It came in a moment of inspiration, while waiting for a waffle cone at a Seattle ice cream shop.
“What if my main character is as sweet and awesome as waffle cones and ice cream,” he thought.
The books have been a hit and garnered awards and praise, including an Eisner Award for Best Publication for Early Readers.
He’s often surprised by how much kids know about narwhals.
“I still run into adults who don’t know that narwhals are real,” he said.
An aspect of the Narwhal books are stories within the main story. They follow Super Waffle and Strawberry Sidekick.
“There have been kids that have told me that’s been their favorite part,” Clanton said.
Clanton is working on a fourth book in the series, “Narwhal’s Otter Friend.”
In between that series, he’s bringing another to life.
His most recent picture book, “Rot, the Cutest in the World,” is the first of a new series that came out in December.
The story follows a mutant potato that comes to accept who he is despite his unconventional appearance.
“A lot of people have been embracing the weirdness aspect of it and the self-image aspect of it, too,” he said. “It’s an eye of the beholder story about what it means to be cute.”
The story reflects Clanton’s drive to make his books as inclusive as possible, including race and gender.
Readers have been posting their own “Rot” potatoes on social media, following the book’s publication.
“It’s really gratifying to have people enjoy the books,” Clanton said. “But even better is when kids make their own story with the characters.”