PINKY PROMISE When Nina Mata auditioned to illustrate a “hush-hush” project back in the spring of 2019, she didn’t think the secret job would be to illustrate LeBron James’s debut, “I Promise,” which enters the children’s picture book list this week at No. 1.
Despite the shock, once Mata read James’s words she didn’t skip a beat. “It was really easy for me to conceptualize this,” she said over the phone from her home in New Jersey. “It was so natural for me.”
“I Promise” the book is the literary extension of I Promise the school, founded by James in Akron, Ohio — his hometown — and designed especially for kids who might otherwise “fall through the cracks.” “It was important to us that the artwork in ‘I Promise’ really reflect all students, so that everyone who reads it can see themselves in the images,” James said in an email from Orlando, Fla., hours before Game 1 of his first-round N.B.A. playoff series. “The inclusive and diverse illustrations are one of my favorite things about the book.”
For Mata, that task hit close to home. “I grew up in Queens,” she said. “I always thought it was a melting pot of culture. So I basically just drew my childhood.”
It was conceived as a back-to-school book, a story of young people of all races committing to bettering one another and themselves, together, everywhere from classrooms to basketball courts to swimming pools to jungle gyms. But now that learning and childhood look so different than they did just six months ago, these messages and images take on a new resonance.
“Kids and families are going through a lot,” James said. “I hope this book can bring them some hope and positivity, and encourage them to keep pushing, because we will make it through this tough time.”
“Even if you aren’t in school school,” Mata agreed, “you can still make these promises in the beginning of the school year. They’re more important even, especially now.”
For James, the publication of this children’s book comes at a time when he misses his own children more than ever. “The hardest part about this situation,” he said of the N.B.A. bubble, “is being away from my family for so long. Not seeing them for this many weeks is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.”