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The Biggest Gift of All Interview with Luda and Melquea

INCLUDAS is proud to announce the publication of our newest children’s picture book, The Biggest Gift of All. We sat down with author Luda Gogolushko and illustrator Melquea Smith to hear about the creative process behind the book, what they hope readers take away from its message, and the greatest gifts they’ve ever given. Read on to hear more from our conversation!

The Biggest Gift of All book cover.

What’s the story about?

Luda Gogolushko: It’s about Tasha, who wants to give the best, biggest gift of all to the best, biggest, awesomest friend that she has. But she’s really unsure because everyone else gives her friend even bigger gifts. She goes on this journey of self-discovery, and it’s really beautiful and colorful and we are so excited to share the message with you.

What was the initial inspiration behind the story?

LG: The original idea was how a lot of people are always trying to be better or bigger or do more than the other person, and they just don’t ever feel good enough. I wanted for kids to know that gift-giving isn’t always about the material aspect of it, and there’s something bigger than just the thing that is given.

Melquea Smith: This was the first project that I’ve ever had where I designed a character with a disability. I had a fear of doing it wrong and offending someone. And I think that’s always the toughest thing about working with characters or working with stories that are not of your own background. I did so much research to have an idea of what muscular dystrophy looks like, how it how it could feel like, but also, I would take the disability aside and figure out who Tasha is as a character and who she is as a person, because that’s always important for any character of any background and any intersectionality. People are people first! It’s not just, “This person is this one thing.”

How do you connect with Tasha’s story, and what parts of yourself do you see in these characters and this story?

LG: Having also been a kid in a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy, that was really important for me to have in illustrations, even though disability wasn’t the drive for the story. Being included in birthday parties is such a huge part of a kid’s journey and life and that should never be taken away just because someone has a disability or is in a wheelchair. The cover is so accurate to disability joy, and inclusion in general; you don’t see a lot of Black kids in wheelchairs on covers, so I’m really excited to show that, and to be like, “This is what we need to see more of.”

MS: I want to expand on what you said about Black folks who are disabled: We don’t see that…I don’t want to say at all, but kind of at all, in terms of media. It doesn’t have to be a story about race or disability: the characters are who they are because they are. I’ve always wanted to give the biggest gift, especially as a kid; I never had a chance to afford to be able to give big gifts. It was just really nice to be able to kind of, to go back in time mentally and personally, and wonder, “Wow, what kind of gift would I give to someone, to my family or my friends?”, and just be able to showcase that in my work.

What is your experience with gift-giving? What’s the best gift you’ve ever received, as well as the best gift you’ve ever given?

MS: I love giving experiences; I want to be able to give my sister the gift of a cruise, because she deserves it, and I love her so much. But on the smaller scale, I love to send handwritten notes to friends and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about you, how are you doing? What’s going on in your life? Here’s something that I’m thinking about!” I think that little gift of time and thoughtfulness is so nice, especially when it happens randomly. Like, “Whoa, what is this? A package? For me?”

LG: I think the gifts that I love giving the most are something handmade, something really personal and intimate and special. I remember that when I was, like, seven years old, my mom really wanted this purse, so I cut out paper and I stapled it and I made a handle and I drew a bird. I was like, “I got you the purse you wanted!” I think she was just excited that I remembered that detail and made something for her, but to me, I thought she was accepting the purse that she always wanted and now had! From that moment, gift giving started to mean a lot to me, like, “Oh my gosh, a gift can make someone’s day happy!” 

What is the main message you hope both kids and adults could take away from this book?

LG: What I would love for readers to take away from the story is understanding how there are different types of gifts and gift-giving, and how it goes beyond the physical gifts that you give. From a disability-inclusive aspect, I want readers to become more open to inviting someone who may look different from them, or who is differently-abled from them. We hope this book is a gift to someone who may not feel like they get gifts.

MS: My biggest hope for folks – young folks, little folks, larger folks – to take away from this book is that: You are enough. You are the gift. It’s not the thing that we give, it’s the message that, “You are on my mind, and I love you, and I think you’re great, and you’re doing great!” And so my biggest thing that I want folks to take away from this is that you – yes, you! – are enough.

What is next for both of you? What projects will you be starting soon?

MS: I’m going to rest. [Laughs.] I definitely am going to take some time to just reflect, to rest, to restore my creative juices. But I’m working on creating the manuscript for my own author-illustrator book. It’s still in process, but I can visualize the characters; I can visualize the story. The theme is the idea of: You’re not too much, and the way that you present yourself is perfect. It’s beautiful. And it should be celebrated. You you can find me at prettykittypaintings.com, and sign up for my email list: that is the best way to get the first notification of whatever I do after I rest. [Laughs.] 

LG: We have a few projects in the works with INCLUDAS Publishing, as well as some research projects. Like, we can say we need diversity, we can say it’s important, but I think what’s really important right now is the research that shows why it actually matters. So what’s next for me is those research projects meant for showing: Yes, what children are reading, what children are watching, it impacts them, and this is why we either need to change it or this is why we need to continue it. You can go to INCLUDAS.com to get all the information about what we do and the books that we promote.

Watch our full interview with Luda and Melquea here!

About the Author:

Luda Gogolushko is passionate about normalizing inclusion, being a trailblazer in diversity, and inspiring others to support underrepresented stories. Growing up with muscular dystrophy, she learned to navigate the world in a wheelchair. Her research efforts focus on challenging media representations that normally exclude children with disabilities.

About the Illustrator:

Photo by Pablo Izquierdo - Capturing Belief.

Melquea Smith is an award-winning Black children’s book illustrator. Certified kid at heart, Melquea’s work immerses her viewers in a colorful realm, sparking connections with others and fosters conversation about the community surrounding them. Her work shows Black girls and women that harnessing creativity, imagination, and weirdness is a valid way to express oneself. You can find more of her work on her website: prettykittypaintings.com.

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