Having seemingly cornered the market on narwhal and jellyfish stories, Ben Clanton is ready to do the same for mutant potatoes. With the November publication of The Greatest in the World!, Clanton’s spunky spud protagonist makes the move from picture books into a new early reader graphic novel series, Tater Tales. PW spoke with Clanton about expanding his cast of potato sibling characters, his comic inspirations, and his pivotal role in introducing a wider public to the charms of narwhals.

What’s the story behind Rot’s transition from picture book protagonist to graphic novel star?

I had signed on for two [Rot] picture books [2017’s Rot, the Cutest in the World and 2020’s Rot, the Bravest in the World!], and when it was time for the second one, I said maybe it should be a graphic novel instead. But Simon & Schuster wanted to see the second picture book through first. Then I pitched them some more picture books for the series, and brought up the graphic novel and they seemed keen to give it a go.

I’ve always been drawn to comics. As a kid I was a reluctant reader, but I consumed pictures and my introduction to reading was through comics. Looking back that would have been a good fit for me from the beginning [as a book creator] but it took me a while to realize that.

Narwhal and Jelly is dialogue-based; there’s slightly less of that in Tater Tales, which has a narrator. But I feel the most immersed in the books when the characters are interacting with each other; the paneling of a graphic novel sets up that back and forth between characters—the kind of rapid-fire response they have to each other. And it makes the writing easier on me, to be honest, because I’m just putting down how the characters are interacting.

In this book, the Rot-Snot sibling dyad expands to include their little sister Tot. How did you decide the story needed a third mutant potato?

Tot, for me, has been there from the get-go. In the second book [2020’s Rot, the Bravest in the World], within the first few pages, there’s an earlier version of Tot with her head sticking out of the top of the mud.

I grew up with one full sibling, and we were a bit like Rot and Snot. In my second book I even wrote, “With special thanks to my big sister, aka Mean Green Samantha Jean, for the inspiration!” I love the different ways siblings interact—how much love is there and then how it can seem like they’re mortal enemies.

I have a [sibling] trio: my oldest is six, then I have a four-year-old, and one who’s a year and half. I was in early stages of The Greatest in the World! when the youngest came into the picture, so I already had an idea of what the book would look like. But watching him with my oldest two, there’s an instant affection they had for him in a way that I ended up mirroring with Snot and Rot and Tot—they have a soft spot for the baby in the family.

Tot has quite the confidence, too. She’s not someone to be pushed around. She added a kind of dynamic that I wish had been there in the second Rot picture book—I’m curious about how that book would have played out if I had made her a part of it.

The comic timing in your books seem effortless. Who were your comedy influences?

As a kid, I wasn’t the class clown. I saw myself as more of a shy misfit. Making friends was especially a struggle for me. And it didn’t help that in my elementary school years I was behind my peers when it came to reading and most subjects.

It was when I was drawing that I felt my happiest, and when watching or looking at comics and cartoons. I was the sort of kid who would wake up at 4:30 a.m. on Saturdays so that I could see as many Saturday morning cartoons as possible. Doug, Pepper Ann, Recess, and anything and everything else. And even though I was slow at reading words, I would go through every single comic in the paper—even the political ones that I didn’t understand.

I’m a lot like my character Jelly, a worrier who is at his happiest when in the wake of Narwhal’s imagination, creativity, and goofy kindness. As a kid, that was Saturday morning cartoons, the funny pages, Jim Henson’s shows and movies, Disney films, and PBS Kids. Calvin and Hobbes was a big influence, and one of my favorites still to this day is Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts. There’s a sweetness to those strips—funny but also sweet.

Bob Shea also comes to mind—he’s such a funny, sweet guy. He has a slightly different tone, though: more deadpan, which for me is very elusive.

Turning back to the Narwhal and Jelly books, did you anticipate when you started the series that it would turn into a kid-lit juggernaut?

Did I foresee this? Yeah, at times I thought I could be onto something, and I was really enjoying making the story and the flow was there.

The original inspiration was a photography book by Paul Nicklen [Polar Obsession, 2009]. I knew I had to make a book about narwhals and was surprised to find there wasn’t too much out there—this was early 2012. I got a fair amount of pushback in the beginning. My agent, Marietta Zacker, was quite the champion from the start, but the editors we sent it to came back with question, “What even is a narwhal?” Narwhals were less in the vernacular back then. Even the eventual publisher of the books more or less soft-passed on the series twice before finally saying yes to it. So I was surprised when they said, “It’s a 40,000 print run.”

I think I was the beneficiary of the rise in popularity of the narwhal—that played some factor. The book was also one of the earlier books to occupy that early graphic novel transitional space and provide a space for reluctant readers. I’m happy to see a lot more books occupying that space now, and I have a lot more [graphic novel] stories for Rot in mind. I’m working on the second book and excited to see where those characters will take me.

I still run into people who think narwhals are a made-up thing, like unicorns. And I’m never exactly sure where I’m going to find the books in a bookstore—will it be with the chapter books, the graphic novels, or the picture books?

The Greatest in the World! (Tater Tales #1) by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster, $12.99 Nov. 8 ISBN 978-1-5344-9318-6