Ideal Age Range: Kindergarten, Primary
Genre: Picture Book
If Narwhal of Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea is confident in his identity (and metaphysical status), Kelp, the equine protagonist of Jessie Sima’s Not Quite Narwhal provides a different take on what it means to be a unicorn in the sea. Not Quite Narwhal can be read as story of self-discovery in a myriad of ways. As an adoption story or coming-out story, it’s far gentler and affirming riff on “The Ugly Duckling.”
Kelp is born inherently different from his narwhal family (inside a clamshell, clearly not a whale), and the differences in taste, size, and aquatic ability grow over time. Despite their shared horned status, Kelp cannot keep up with his narwhal friends and family. Yet Kelp and his friends decide that difference doesn’t matter…until, of course, Kelp discovers that he his size, shape, and tastes are not unique, simply out of place. Leaving the story here would leave Kelp in ugly duckling territory (“I’m a swan now – so long lame ducks!”). However, Sima goes one step further. For Kelp, identity isn’t an either/or proposition. Whereas the narwhals and unicorns seem happy with their discrete species forms, Kelp gets to belong to both communities.
What I enjoyed about this book is the way in which difference (between unicorns and narwhals) exists in concrete and definable ways but is not an impediment to friendship.
Unicorns do exist – after all, Kelp is a unicorn even before he or his narwhal friends can clearly define his difference. The absence of unicorns around him does not negate his difference. As a unicorn, he is first unique among the narwhals only because he is isolated and later, he is unique only because his unicorn-ness is inflected by his narwhal upbringing. He isn’t good at swimming, but neither is being a land-creature instinctive. Once on land, he needs to learn how to walk and how to appreciate “unicorn delicacies,” not to mention “all sorts of new things about his tusk.” Thus, among the unicorns, Kelp finds that he cannot shake his narwhal-ness. But this mixture of loyalty enriches him.
Ultimately, narwhals don’t become equine unicorns or vice versa … cohabitation and mutual appreciation are not predicated on erasing the ways narwhals and unicorns diverge, but on making the environmental barrier (land vs sea) between them more permeable. The last spread shows narwhals and unicorns playing on the shoreline. Given the perils of the beach to narwhals, the unicorns have taken the extra step in wading into the water to meet their aquatic counterparts. The flyleaf suggests that the work of rethinking unicorn-ness is not done –a rhinoceros confidently announces “I’m a UNICORN!” to which Kelp can respond only with a skeptical “Um…”
Alongside the story of opening up communities, Not Quite Narwhal is lovely to look at. The pastel palette seems just right for both the soft curves of the narwhals and their undersea environment and for the rainbow-flecked land of the unicorns. The illustrative style mixes traditional spreads with panels and speech bubbles. The structure is soothingly palindromic; mirrored sequences of Kelp swimming to and from his narwhal and unicorn communities bracket Kelp’s sense of displacement, his discovery of like creatures, and his blending of his two families.
Both playful and pretty to look at, Not Quite Narwhal is endearing story of self-discovery.