I actually was introduced to Daria Peoples-Riley via an Instagram post about her newest book I GOT NEXT, which was just released on July 31st. I GOT NEXT is about a young basketball player as he prepares for an upcoming pickup game with the encouragement of his shadow.
When I finally got my hands on her book, I was instantly captivated by her illustrations: Wow, just wow. I felt like I was right next to the main character, walking through a well-loved community. I just had to feature this book and author-illustrator on Colorful Pages!
Luckily, when I reached out, Daria agreed to do an interview to discuss her own story and latest picture book. Daria and I were able to do a deep dive into several topics, so let’s get started:
Kaitlin Kamalei Jenkins (KKJ): Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Daria Peoples-Riley (DP): I was born in Los Angeles, California, and grew up on the Central Coast, Paso Robles, California, a small town about two hours north of Santa Barbara. We lived near my grandmother and great-grandmother for most of my adolescence and teenage years, so I was blessed to grow up in a multi-generational home. Most of my summers were spent in Flagstaff, Arizona with my paternal grandmother. As a child, I loved playing basketball with my two younger brothers, drawing, and writing. My mom was an English teacher, actor, and creative writer and my dad was a Special Education teacher and oil painting hobbyist. I guess when you put that combination together, one of us was destined to be a teacher, author-illustrator! I graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree in English and Black Studies, got married, began a family and a teaching career soon after, and after over ten years of teaching became an author-illustrator.
KKJ: What is your racial and cultural identity? How does your identity add to your work as an author and illustrator?
DP: It wasn’t until I left for college that I identified myself as anything else but black, and I still do, but when I moved away from my small town where everyone knew my family, it was a question I was always asked, along with “What are you? What are you mixed with? What else are you?” And yet, I always responded, “What you mean? I’m black!” But years later, I took an ancestry test because after decades of being questioned, I began to wonder. Turns out. I am black—West and East African, and I am also almost everything else. Cuban. French. British. Irish. And Native American—pretty much in that order. However, if you ask me today, I will say the same, “I’m black!” (I love my people, and all of who we are.)
I think my identity adds layers to my work as an author and illustrator, like being black, being a woman, being exposed to languages other than English in the home through my grandmother and great-grandmother, and even being perceived as other gives me a unique perspective. It makes my work layered, and it informs my perspective of the world, which is unique. I bring all of who I am to every text, whether I write it or illustrate it.
KKJ: In your opinion, what is the importance of multicultural/diverse books?
DP:I hope by now, we all know that multicultural and diverse books are important because they provide mirrors, doors and windows for readers, however, as a creator of diverse heroes and heroines, my main priority is mirror making. We see everyone in the world except for ourselves unless we look into a mirror. Since my books become those mirrors for my diverse readers, and I am painting their self-portrait, it is my greatest responsibility to reflect their truth. When children see themselves in my books, I want their wholeness and the highest expression of who they are to look back at them, eye to eye, and say, “Yes, this is you. Now be it.”
KKJ: Let’s talk about I GOT NEXT. What inspired you to create I GOT NEXT?
DP: Basketball was my first love. My husband and his father and uncles played it. My son plays. Both my brothers played. My nephews play. My father played and introduced me to the game at a very young age. I think my first Laker game was at two years old, and I grew up playing the game all the way through high school. It’s apart of our family legacy. The game of basketball has always inspired me.
But specifically for I GOT NEXT, I was inspired to create a story about the journey of the young black male athlete, to confront the way in which black males are categorized as being one dimensional from a very young age, as if athleticism and contribution in any other area of community or school is mutually exclusive, which has never been the case for white male athletes. There is a racial bias against black male athletes, and it begins as soon as a black boy picks up any kind of ball and it continues with the dehumanization of black men in sports, which is why we have commentators and fans who tell our community to “shut up and dribble.”
I wanted to create a basketball story that reveals the multiple layers of the young black athlete for picture book readers when identity is being shaped and cultivated. The hero in I GOT NEXT wants to master the game, and he also wants so much more for himself—to be a leader, to be a hard worker, to be a person who never gives up, to be resilient against adversity, and to be an advocate for others.
Black boys and men should never be told or required “to shut up and dribble.” That’s racism. It’s time to reframe the conversation for all audiences and their parents.
KKJ: The illustrations in I GOT NEXT incorporate many different symbols and images of iconic leaders as the little boy is walking through his community. What was your thought process behind these illustrations? Why those specific leaders and symbols?
DP: It was important for the art to authentically reflect urban and rural communities I’ve been apart of as a child and an an adult, and specific to the experience of the hero in I GOT NEXT. The under-resourced neighborhood portrayed in the story is his adversary, but he finds hope, beauty, and inspiration co-existing. The hero’s imagination is never limited by his environment.
I wish to be involved in more community collaboration, and the way an artist pursues collaboration is often through public art, which is why I chose a mural for the endpapers. The specific leaders featured influenced my journey. The hummingbirds, two frequent visitors to my creative space, represent joy, hope, comfort, love, gratitude, independence, freedom, and optimism. And the sunflowers illustrate happiness and healing, which was influenced by the work of Sonia Lynn Sadler, and her book Seeds of Change written by Jen Cullerton Johnson.
KKJ: We were so excited to hear that you were a teacher! How would you like teachers to use I GOT NEXT in their classrooms? How do you envision your book being used with students?
YES!! I was a teacher, and still do workshops for adults and school visits for children. I GOT NEXT is a great read for test-day jitters, pre-game jitters, and any time we need our game face on to get locked in to do something hard! It is also an inspirational story for any child who is striving to be a leader. I hope teachers, librarians, and parents closely read the visual story in I GOT NEXT. In the background, the hero has to overcome his fears to be an advocate for the young girl who is being excluded from playing in the game, an experience I lived many days on the court. I think this is an important portrayal of friendship, kindness, and ultimately, a way boys can use their privilege to open doors of opportunity for girls in a positive way. . And of course, I think more school communities should create public art in collaboration with students and parents to inspire, uplift, and resist.
KKJ: What’s next for Daria Peoples-Riley? Any upcoming projects?
DP: I’m working on my first YA novel, and I’m also working on an upcoming picture book, which should be announced soon! I was also recently blessed with the opportunity to be mentored by Floyd Cooper through the Highlights Foundation Diversity Fellowship. Because I didn’t go to art school, his expertise and guidance is very influential in my development as an artist.
A big thanks to Daria Peoples-Riley, talented author-illustrator, for taking the time to converse with Colorful Pages! Do not forget to order her newest book, I GOT NEXT, so your little ones can also enjoy this action-packed diverse book!