When “I Promise,” written by LeBron James and Illustrated by Nina Mata, (Illustration, ’08), was released last August, it became an instant New York Times #1 best selling children’s book. Shortly after it was named by Amazon and Barnes & Noble as among “the best books of the year” for young readers.
It was a high profile achievement for Mata, but it was one of only many celebrated children’s books she has illustrated since graduation.
Mata paid a virtual visit this fall to Illustration Professor Anthony Capparelli’s Pictorial Problem Solving class. She spoke about the direction of her career, her current practice, and the figures both on paper and real, who play an integral part in her life and craft.
“Here in a nutshell is what led me to this amazing, thriving career,” she said. “The hardest part was to own my story and find my voice, what my purpose was for illustrating children’s books. It came through drawing my childhood and the diverse community I grew up with.”
Mata spoke about working on “I Promise,” with LeBron James. It’s a case study on how elevated a children’s book can become.
The children’s book became a calling card for basketball superstar LeBron James and Mata as well.
Time magazine, in naming LeBron James 2020 Athlete of the Year wrote: “On the way to another NBA title [he] transformed what an athlete can be.” Especially for his nonprofit “More than a Vote,” with the single-minded focus of getting people to the polls. It was, Time said, the highest profile example of a surge in activism across the world of sports in 2020.
The book’s big 10 x 10-inch pages expand the idea of LeBron’s I Promise school, in rustbelt Akron, OH, where he grew up. The school is aimed at helping kids reach their full potential. The young students promise every day to work hard, set goals, and hold themselves accountable.
In a nod to Mata, LeBron James told the New York Times:
“It was important to us that the artwork in ‘I Promise’ reflect all students, so that everyone who reads it can see themselves in the images…The inclusive and diverse illustrations are one of my favorite things about the book” said James referencing Mata’s work.
Mata, who gets full cover credit, says the “instant” success was almost two years in the making. She was asked in early 2019 to be one of numerous illustrators auditioning for the hush-hush project for an unnamed author. The list was soon down to two. She won the championship-level job about several months later.
Mata says she essentially drew her childhood. Daughter of Philippine immigrants, she grew up in a multi-ethnic Queens, New York, neighborhood. Despite her surprise at hearing James was the author, she was ready.
“I Promise” highlights young people of all backgrounds working together to help each other in classrooms and playgrounds, basketball courts and swimming pools.
By the time it arrived last August, the pandemic had changed the world, but the book’s message and its art still held true. The promises are even more important now.
“Kids and families are going through a lot,” James told the New York Times. “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.” When the book came out, he was not allowed to be with his own three children due to COVID dangers.
Mata has many other credits. She was nominated for the 52nd NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature and is a 2021 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honoree for her work in “Ty’s Travels, Zip Zoom by Kelly Starling Lyons.” Her book projects also include one by American gymnast Laurie Hernandez, “She’s Got This,” (also a New York Times bestseller!) and books in the Ty’s Travels I Can Read series.
“It was a joy to be visited by my former student, Nina Mata for our IL 262-15A Pictorial Problem Solving Class! Nina was a pleasure as a student, and has become an accomplished professional through a fierce commitment to professional excellence. Nina offered invaluable career advice. She exemplifies FIT’s commitment to professional excellence with an inclusive educational experience for future artists and illustrators,” says Prof. Capparelli.
Mata emphasized that the journey took time. After her first six years – a career that started with national economic collapse just two months before her May 2009 graduation.
On her husband’s advice, Mata gave herself a year to step back, have fun, and develop a true “look” and illustration style. She did just that, evolving a looser, more carefree approach.
“The hardest part (of my career) was to own my story and find my voice, what my purpose was for illustrating children’s books. It came through drawing my childhood and the diverse community I grew up with,” says Nina Mata, ’08
During that year “I played with a lot of patterns, dabbled a lot with abstract art,” says Mata. She began to incorporate the patterns and textures into her work. “I stopped over rendering and just had fun. It was my year for letting go.” She created a piece of her childhood friends in front of a bodega that she was an “homage to the carefree days of growing up in Queens….It made me realize we don’t see enough diversity on books with illustrations. It really inspired me to change that.” Mata had found her style and her purpose.
She told the students:
- Step outside your comfort zone. Draw things you don’t usually do
- Take a business class
- Promotional postcards STILL work
- Watch the trends and give it your own twist
- Attend conferences. Take online classes, keep learning
- Never work for free or for the “experience”
- Illustration is an isolating career. Make friends
- Follow Instagram and Pinterest, especially, for trends
- You’re ready when you say you are. Go out and do it!
Mata credits her agent with much of her success. “It’s like the saying if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far, you have to go together,” said Mata.
It took her a long time to find an agent, and then six months to get an assignment. During that time “she helped me build my portfolio to where it needed to be. She knew what art directors were looking for and editors were looking for.”
Although she does some of her own promotion, she says her agent’s advice has been key. For instance, one time her agent told her that dragons and unicorns were a coming thing. Naturally Mata practiced drawing them before she had assignment that called for them. She reads all the contracts herself after her agent does the negotiating.
Also key has been her membership in The Society of Childrens’ Book Writers and Illustators, and has been part of many illustrations groups like an Illustrators Happy Hour. “Share resources and celebrate successes. Connect with other illustrators. Learn from each other.
“Finally, you’re ready when you say you are,” says Mata. “You have to be courageous and believe in yourself. If you keep going you’re only going to get better. Like me, I was able to work and grow as an artist at the same time.”
To hear Nina Mata read “I Promise” go to: I Promise Storytime with Lebron and Nina.
To learn more about the Illustration major go to Illustration at FIT.
Art work courtesy of Nina Mata.