Uni the Unicorn

Written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Illustrated by Brigette Barrager

Random House, 2014
Medium: Photoshop

I vividly remember the morning the text manuscript for Uni the Unicorn arrived in my email inbox. I was teaching a class and we were on a break, and I was just checking my email on my phone as you do. There was one from my agent with a text attached, and I opened it up and scanned through it, and then I ran out of the room and down the hallway to call Kirsten, and without saying hello I exclaimed “YOU MUST GET ME THIS BOOK!” 

Sometimes there is more than one illustrator being considered for a book, and I thought surely other artists must be clamoring for this one (how could they not?) but I came to find out that I was the only artist the editor had considered at that point. Perfect!

Amy was already a known and celebrated children’s author by then, but I was still an unknown. As the story goes, the editor had found images of two paintings of mine on the internet somewhere – Rose Red and Rose White meeting the bear prince – and thought, this person understands how to make a magical image. Again, what luck!

Before I began sketching, I had a phone call with Amy and the editor to discuss art direction and the symbolism of unicorns in storytelling. The suffix “uni” means “one”, and likewise our little unicorn should feel timeless, ageless (although childlike), and genderless – Uni uses no pronouns. Uni is always just Uni. I drew up some character concepts to show Amy, and when we’d agreed on a direction, I started sketches. 

I wanted this book to have a timeless uni-versal feeling, as if it could be contemporary or from decades ago. I looked to vintage Little Golden Books for visual inspiration: clean shapes, whimsical colors, and painterly textures. We were off to the land of unicorns!

Somewhere in the midst of working on this I fell behind schedule…very behind schedule. The editor called me. She said “I’m afraid that this book is not going to get done.” I took a deep breath and responded, “I’m really sorry – my mother in law is in hospice. She has cancer. My husband is a wreck. It’s been unbelievably hard. I’m really trying to get it done!” And that is exactly what was happening. Bad luck. No one warns you that sadness makes you very, very slow. The editor didn’t miss a beat, but told me not to worry, and that it would get done when it got done. 

My mother in law, Kathleen, passed away in August of 2013. One year later, Uni the Unicorn was on bookshelves everywhere, and by the first week of September 2014 it was on the New York Times Bestseller’s List. 

The effects of this book have been life-changing, both personally and professionally. Uni now has two hardcover sequels (Uni the Unicorn and the Dream Come True, Uni the Unicorn in the Real World) in addition to many early reader books, paperback picture books, stuffed animals, pajamas, quilting fabrics, journals, stickers…and the list keeps growing. 

My own theory of Uni’s success is a simple one, and it has less to do with how pretty the pictures are, or capitalizing on the unicorn’s arrival in the zeitgeist – and more to do with the message behind the rainbows and the flowers: what if the thing that you believe in most, that you wish for more than anything, is out there somewhere believing in and wishing for you too? 

After all, it’s a story about believing

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