In conversation with: Craig Pomranz, Made by Raffi author, speaking on identity
So many times, powerful moments of reflection for adults are inspired by the experiences, positive or negative, of the children who they love and care for. This was recently the case for author, Craig Pomranz, who was inspired by the experience of his godson, Rafael, to begin exploring questions of difference and identity.
Mr Pomranz recently spoke with The Sector about the result of his explorations, which produced his “light and funny book with a serious message”, Made by Raffi. The book is designed to support readers, young and old, to shed notions of gender stereotyping, and consider more deeply why ‘tomboys’ are embraced and encouraged as strong and powerful, while feminine boys are presented as a negative idea.
Interviewee: Craig Pomranz, author
Topic: gender, difference, identity, stereotyping
Freya: Wonderful to speak with you Craig, thank you for making time to talk to us. Can I start with asking you to tell us more about Made by Raffi? What was your inspiration for the character of Raffi? Is he based on anyone special in your world?
Craig: The character of Raffi is inspired by my godson Rafael. He felt different from the other children and once asked his mother, “Is there such a thing as a tomgirl?” That question alone inspired the story – to me it was a larger question than one boy’s experience.
After all, the notion of a tomboy is a relatively positive idea. Typically when a girl is identified as a tomboy, she is an assertive, athletic and decisive girl. On the other hand, a tomgirl has different connotations in our society – a feminine boy is often seen as a negative idea. Which brings about the question of why feminine in society is a negative idea.
I often quote Gloria Steinem when she said: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons…but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”
My book seeks to help shed these notions of gender stereotyping. It is a light and funny book with a serious message.
Freya: I read that Rafi dislikes noise and rowdy play, a type of play typically associated with boys – do you think Rafi will also identify with children of both genders who have issues with sensory processing, and struggle with noise and crowds?
Craig: You are the first to ask this great question, and yes I think any child who struggles with noisy environments would relate to him. Thank you for pointing this out.
I would add that the character of Raffi (and my real-life godson!) was physically smaller than the other boys and hadn’t had a lot of experience with boisterous play. I think most other children like him would be wary of noise and a lot of physical interaction.
Freya: You’re welcome! I see that the book has been made available in eight languages to 11 countries. Can you tell us more about where Rafi has made the most impact? How far is Made by Raffi’s reach?
Craig: I believe that struggling with society-imposed gender roles crosses all cultures – I have heard from adults and children around the world. The adults often speak of how they identify with Raffi and see themselves in the story. The children not only identify, but offer ideas of how to help Raffi become more comfortable with himself…as well as the occasional clothing design they want Raffi to make!
It seems that letters from East Asia and the Middle East are the most poignant in their gratitude for finding the book, perhaps because gender roles are particularly rigid in their societies.
Freya: I understand that there’s been a song written which goes along with the story – how exciting! Can you tell us more about the song collaboration, and how that came about?
Craig: Amanda McBroom (composer of Bette Midler’s award-winning song “The Rose”) and Michele Brourman (composer and collaborator on “The Land Before Time” series) read the book. Amanda immediately came up with lyrics and sent them to Michele and they wrote the song for me to sing. I was honored that they liked the message of the book and thrilled to record it.
Ed note: If you would like to listen to the song, recorded by Craig, please see here.
Freya: I was so pleased to see your work showcased alongside Sparkle Boy, which is one of my favourite picture books, in the MERGE for Equality Children’s Book Campaign. Can you tell our readers a little more about MERGE for Equality and the work they do?
Craig: MERGE for Equality works to advance the beliefs, thoughts, and behaviours that allow men and boys to be their authentic selves and embrace their role in ensuring gender equality. They work with individuals, groups, and communities across the globe, in alliance with girls, women and all marginalised people.
The Children’s Book Campaign is about reinforcing a core MERGE belief – that boys, and indeed all children, are born loving, caring and sensitive. From the time they are born, children learn about gender from a variety of sources, including books, media, educators and families.
Sometimes, sadly, children are limited by the gender norms and stereotypes they see in children’s books. The books chosen by MERGE are selected to help children and adults to learn more about, and gain an appreciation of, gender equality.
I was honoured to be the author of the first book MERGE put forth in their effort to re-imagine masculinity and advance the idea of embracing our differences.
I immediately resonated with their mission of helping people find a way to become a whole person, comfortable in their own skin. I believe that the younger we reach children with messages about equality and acceptance, the better for all. It is a wonderful organisation.
Freya: Thanks Craig. As we finish up, I wanted to ask what your core piece of advice for all the Raffi’s of the world be?
Craig: I wish that every child has the support system Raffi has, but sadly they do not. Children need family, teachers, caregivers, siblings and friends to support and embrace who they are without judgment.
My advice is the same as Raffi’s mother’s in the story: be your own self – you deserve to be loved for who and what you are.
My wish is that children find a way to become whole and self-assured enough to ignore the detractors and show them tolerance by example. This also helps children not become victims to bullying and other negative circumstances around them.
Freya: What a powerful note to end on, thank you Craig.