Interview: Vasanti Unka talks about I am the Universe
Updated: Mar 17
Vasanti Unka is an award-winning writer, designer and illustrator of children’s picture books, noted for the originality of her storytelling, her riotously colourful and inventive illustrations and the innovative design and production of her books. Her stories have won awards in New Zealand and internationally, and have sold around the world. She lives in Auckland where she juggles creative work and numerous book projects. She has a Masters degree in design and she tutors in this field. I am the Universe is the winner of the NZ Booklovers Children's Award for 2021.
Tell us a little about your book.
The book is about the universe and it is about us. It is about how we all have a special place within this huge space. Begining with the universe, the space is narrowed with each turn of the page and ends with a child. But really, it doesn’t end. The child is looking back out to space, gazing at stars. The book shows our connectedness – to the whole universe and to each other. This theme has become more relevant during the past year. Many people have found this aspect of the book comforting. I’ve witnessed someone crying when they got to the page that shows a family. The text simply says, ‘We are a family, being together is all that we need.’
What inspired you to write this book?
A walk on Murawai beach, marvelling that there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand on Earth, and feeling special to be able to live in a place where I can easily walk on a beach and think about these things.
What research was involved?
There was lots of research about space and Earth to garner sciencey facts. Also lots of space photos from Hubble alongside landscapes, towns and houses for illustration reference.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
The idea came easily as did the first draught. Tweaking, to get the perfect words took ages. Illustrating took a few totally enjoyable months.
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
Epic songs – Daft Punk’s album Random Access Memories.
If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?
The movie would have a huge cast. I’d love to see all the people who classify as essential workers in the movie. The are superstars.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this picture book?
I loved every step. I write, illustrate and design all my books, and each step feels exciting. You’ve heard the old adeage, ‘A picture is a thousand words,’ well, I wanted the illustrations to say ten million words. But I also wanted the short sentenced text to be as meaningful as ten million words, yet scientifically correct. I wanted the overall design to be minimal so that the words and the illustrations could look cohesively powerful. So of course this was all a challenge but I nerdily find it exciting.
What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?
For some reason – I never feel like I’ve finished.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
I have loved reading Rose Lu’s All who Live on Islands. Intimate yet universal.
What’s next on the agenda for you? Writing and illustrating – forever.