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Are You There God? It's Me, Juanita

'I Promise' This Is A Message Book Your Kids Will Love

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HarperCollins

What I refer to as "message books" don't normally make a big splash in my house. You know the ones you REALLY want your kids to take to heart but end up being cast aside for The Babysitters Club or Judy Moody or Wings of Fire? The ones you start reading aloud, hoping your kids will learn to be nice, or be themselves, or control their temper, but instead of listening, your kid starts acting EXACTLY the opposite of the book's message? The ones you keep on the shelf in the vain hope that your kids will one day say, "Aha! Of course, THAT'S how it's supposed to be!" Yes, I thought you might. Do you still buy them? Of course you do.

I do too.

Even being fairly sure how my kids normally react to message books, once in a while, a very rare once in a while, one hits with them. There is no rhyme or reason to it, no formula I can follow that will keep me from spending money and time on yet another message book that will end up being donated. But once in a blue moon there's a message book that just clicks (sort of like brussels sprouts with bacon — who knew my kids would go crazy over that?).

LeBron James has written such a book. Yes, that LeBron James.

I'm going to be straight-up honest: When it comes to basketball, I only watch college ball. Okay, I will be more honest: I only watch University of Virginia basketball. (Okay, I also watch Longwood University basketball, but they play in my hometown, and the wife of the men's coach is my best friend, and the coach of the women's team is a very good friend, so I have no choice.) I never played basketball, and I have won one game of HORSE in my entire life, but I am a huge fan of the pivot foot, won an NCAA bracket pool in 2012, and have seen Hoosiers at least five times.

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But LeBron James is a man on a mission, and you don't have to be an expert on basketball to get it. (Thank you, Mr. James.) In 2018, James opened the I Promise school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio for at-risk kids and kids who were deemed "the worst performers in the Akron public schools." What began as a community service program continues to grow, and James' new children's book, I Promise, is his latest attempt to reach out to kids. The result is a message book on par with brussels sprouts and bacon, as far as my kids are concerned.

I Promise is a beautiful book. Illustrator Nina Mata's colors are bright and her children diverse, which James has said was his definite vision, but what really drew my kids in were the little moments she created, the little things that end up being big things: slamming down on your hand when you trip over a jump rope, or being the only one who is scared to get on the school bus.

While there isn't a main character in I Promise, there is one little girl who appears several times. The image of her sitting on a bench, so small that her feet don't even touch the ground, leaning her head on her brother's shoulder after she fails to sink a basketball, brought me and my kids very near tears (my kids started hugging all over each other; it was nice while it lasted), and they immediately started talking about the challenges in their own lives, hard moments may seem small to grown-ups but are huge for kids.

And LeBron James' promises are huge too. "I promise to use kindness when I speak" is no small thing to kids who sass with almost every breath, and "I promise to remain strong and humble with every win and defeat" seems almost insurmountable to a six-year-old who cries when she loses at Sleeping Queens (not to mention a ten-year-old who rubs it in when he wins at Sleeping Queens).

But the promises are supposed to be huge. LeBron James will be the first to tell you that he didn't know if the dreams he had as a kid would ever be a reality. He will be the first to tell you that it was the promises he made to himself that helped him forge a path out of his difficult childhood, but he will also be the first to tell you that promises are not enough.

"When I was growing up in Akron, I always had big dreams," he writes. "Because of the situation we were in, I didn't always know if those dreams would be possible. The purpose of these promises we make to ourselves and to each other, and that we're sharing with kids across the world in this book, is to tell them they can do anything they put their minds to if they commit to doing the hard work."

And it is hard work. It is hard work to speak with kindness and to pick yourself up after you fall, no matter how many times you promise yourself you will do it. It can be hard work to do the right thing, and hard work to admit that you're wrong. And it can also be hard work to give a message book its due.

Yes, it's easier to set a message book aside in favor of re-reading Are You My Mother? It can be difficult to take the time to stop and talk through the lessons when there is no story, and it doesn't always work. But LeBron James and Nina Mata have made it work, for both my kids and for me. And I didn't even have to know anything about basketball.

Juanita Giles is the founder and executive director of the Virginia Children's Book Festival. She lives on a farm in Southern Virginia with her family.

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