New York City crooner Craig Pomranz specializes in the Great American Songbook. But he was moved to write when he noticed that his then 8-year-old godson, Raffi, was having trouble adjusting in school. Raffi didn’t like roughhousing or noisy games. Kids made fun of him until his parents encouraged him to knit. Then, Raffi found a hobby and a source of pride. Pomranz chronicles this transformation in his children’s book “Made By Raffi,” which Kirkus Reviews calls a “solid support for all children who don’t fit an accepted mode of behavior.” It’s illustrated by British artist Margaret Chamberlain.
Raffi tries to ignore bullying from other kids as he knits, but it’s hard to avoid. He asks his parents if he’s “weird” or a “tomgirl.” They support him, and eventually he goes on to knit a cape for the school play. Spoiler alert: Everyone loves it, and other kids ask the young fashion designer to create clothes for them.
Pomranz knows what it feels like to be different: He grew up in an Orthodox home in St. Louis.
“The boys and girls I grew up with weren’t athletic. It was about studying and being polite. Getting into the public schools, we were different, because kids were sports-oriented. That was part of the dynamic: ‘We’re different, and why?’ Luckily, there were enough of us that we felt supported,” he says.
He talked to JewishBoston about lessons from the book and how he hopes it can help kids who feel like outsiders.
What inspired you to write this book?
“Made By Raffi” was inspired by an incident with my godson. He’s a child with some challenges. He was a shy child. Kids would be loud and noisy, and he didn’t like it. I always thought that focusing on other things would be nice, so I decided to get him some knitting needles. He took to them and fell in love. He started knitting everywhere.
He loved this hobby, but it was perceived as something that a boy shouldn’t necessarily do. When he told his parents that he was more comfortable sitting at recess and knitting, he asked, ‘Is there such a thing as a ‘tomgirl’? There is no such thing! It already has a negative [connotation] to it. ‘Tomboy’ is assertive, and you can do athletics and this and that. This idea of how, at such a young age, the child could come up with this idea about which is better and which is worse of these stereotypes blew me away.
He was lucky enough to have parents who said: ‘You’re your own Raffi.’ Gloria Steinem said recently that we’ve came to an age where parents are comfortable raising their girls more like boys, but they won’t raise their boys more like girls. It was a fascinating idea to me. Why is the idea of being feminine a negative?
What’s the takeaway from the book?
It’s about empowering children. One of the biggest messages is that the child is never a victim.
What’s the reaction been like?
It was astonishing in so many ways. First and foremost, I forgot how powerful a picture book could be. You see adults relate to this idea because we have all felt different. It encompasses anxieties all of us feel. The book is now in 11 countries, eight languages and we’re negotiating it to be in Israel as we speak, which would make my mom very happy!
It’s interesting that I hear from all over the world. A man in Instanbul wrote to me and said, “Particularly here in Turkey, we have to recognize that being different is a good thing. People of all kinds live in the world and we have so much to learn and share and enjoy.” He bought several copies for his nieces and nephews.
What else have you written?
I wrote a book called “My Face Is Funny” about kids and body image. I’m excited about that book, and I may be working on a series of Raffi books. I’m also working on a graphic novel about the art of shaving, because nobody is ever taught how!
What do you hope parents learn from this book?
If kids can come into their own in a healthy way, people start to respect them. That’s what happened in his case. Raffi was knitting, then he started sewing, and interestingly, when you’re older, those industries are run by men! But at that age, everyone looks at you, frowns and raises their eyebrows. Because he had so much support from his family, he was able to do something good. He made something for a play. Suddenly, it was terrific. He got a bump up. He was a hero. Kids asked, “You’ll design my clothes, right?” Because he also had that parental support.