At some point, every child will experience the feeling of being different. From hobby interests to gender identity, some children will have a more intense experience of not being like the rest. And all children encounter others who are different. How will they view those contrasts? Will they be able to see the unique richness diversity can bring to any social group? When children’s book author, Craig Pomranz introduced me to his book, I was immediately attracted to the story of a child, Raffi, who felt different and used his difference to make a unique contribution to his school. Raffi’s willingness to find a place for his interests connected him to his classmates instead of isolating him. I found Craig’s story and motivations for writing it inspiring. The following is my virtual conversation with this talented author with a vital message for children.
What inspired you to write this book?
Made by Raffi is based on a true-life incident involving my godson. When he was eight or nine, he asked his mother why he was different. Was he a “tomgirl’? A little boy made up a term that was not really in use and yet had significant meaning. And his question was very layered with other thoughts about the world in which he was being raised. Why is it negative or even shameful for a boy to be interested in anything traditionally feminine? The word “tomboy” has a positive connotation to it, up to a point. It seems that it is okay for girls to want to be like boys, but it is unacceptable for a boy to want to be like a girl. I hoped to start conversations among young people and their parents and teachers, while at the same time entertaining them.
Who are your influences and people whom you admire?
My parents are a great influence in so many ways. Their unconditional love enabled me to know that life is hard for everyone, but everyone deserves love. Four boys in a family wasn’t always easy, yet they always treated us as independent individuals. It is their continuous affection (still to this day) for each other that will always be with me. I have also been fortunate to have mentors in my life. At age ten, I started studying acting with actress Lynn Cohen (Mags “The Hunger Games”, Magda “Sex and the City”) until I went to college. She and her husband Ronald Cohen remain a huge influence, and Ron produces and directs my shows.
What is your professional background?
I am an actor, singer and dancer mostly working as a vocalist and song stylist at the moment, in clubs all over the world. I have been a professional actor from age ten.
How does this story align with your own life?
We have all felt “different” at times in our lives and at different ages. It’s a learning process to find comfort in who you are. In my life, because I was a working child actor, I really had to learn how to be alone a lot. I always felt more comfortable with adults than kids my age. But, like Raffi, I also found respect and some confidence in that I had a talent and was able to focus on it. I believe that helped me ignore any teasing that came my way. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel the hurt from an unkind word, but it was easier to shrug a remark off because I felt like I had something to offer.
What does Raffi symbolize in the world to you? What does the big rainbow scarf symbolize?
Raffi is gentle but persistent — he shows the world (or at least his world) that you can ignore the chaos around you and literally “stick to your knitting.” The scarf was award-winning illustrator Margaret Chamberlain’s vision. I don’t really think it has a specific meaning other than being extremely colorful. People have asked me if it is a reference to the gay rainbow flag and I don’t believe since that is exactly the opposite of the point of the book. Participating in nontraditional hobbies says nothing about sexual preference.
What do you hope children will take away from your book?
First, I hope they are entertained and like the funny story of Raffi. Second, I hope they will learn some empathy. Everyone has moments where they feel that they don’t fit in, so let’s be a little kinder to those in that position. Finally, I hope they learn not to immediately identify themselves as victims — that is a seductive position that can become a way of life. Raffi is a role model because he quietly even meditatively, pursues his interest while ignoring his would-be tormentors.
I particularly like that the story went beyond tolerance and acceptance – that Raffi made a significant contribution to his classmates through his costume designs and became part of the “fabric” of the class activities in his own unique way. In what ways do you think schools can help promote the unique contributions of children?
This is a great question. I think schools should celebrate differences, not merely tolerate them. Boys might look askance at a boy who likes to cook, but they might really enjoy eating the cupcakes!
How do you think parents can teach the values of inclusiveness and acceptance and celebration of each individual’s unique contributions?
It takes courage. Lots of parents say they want their children to be themselves up until the moment that the teasing starts. They see that their children are unhappy and self-conscious, so they urge them to conform. This is understandable, but may be the wrong approach. Parents should try to teach their kids strategies to find a quiet, peaceful, safe place to be themselves, like Raffi. Of course they also have to teach their children to accept others. We see this happen when children decide to participate in a fundraiser or charity benefiting a global issue presented on the news. The challenge for parents and teachers is to help them see the issues facing their peers closer to home.
What is your next project?
I have written several new books, which I hope will be released early next year. One deals with children’s preoccupation with their appearance, and another on understanding illness and its impact.
Also, composers Amanda McBroom (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”) and Michele Brourman (“The Land Before Time”) wrote a wonderful song titled “Different” to be attached to “Made by Raffi.” I hope to release it in the next few months.
If people want to purchase a book, where would you send them?
Amazon and Barnes and Noble. “Made by Raffi” can also be purchased at local bookstores and international book sites as it has been translated into several languages and distributed in eleven countries to date.
My sincere thanks to Craig Pomranz for sharing his story with us. I know our family will cherish his delightful story!