Childhood is a time fraught with uncertainty and insecurity. Growing up, almost everyone, at some point, has felt like the odd man out — or felt just plain different. While some children are fortunate enough to have adults in their life who celebrate their “differences” and encourage them to let their true colors shine, others aren’t so lucky. Made By Raffi (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books), a unique new children’s book about one brave little boy who forges his own path despite peer pressure, is a must-read for all children.
While being perceived as different can be difficult for kids who just want to fit in, seeing other kids being brave, and celebrating themselves for who they are, can be a powerful tool. Craig Pomranz’s heartwarming book is one such tool for both children and their parents.
We caught up with Pomranz to ask him some questions about his newly released book, advice for parents and kids who might be struggling with feeling different, and about his own childhood experiences.
Q: What or who was your inspiration for penning Made By Raffi?
A: The book was inspired by my godson. As a little boy, he wasn’t so interested in sports or rough and tumble play. When he was about 9, he asked for knitting needles for his birthday, and I was delighted to supply. He really took to it and found it very peaceful and comforting. At some point, I guess he was teased. He then began to ask questions about why he was different.
I was fascinated when he came up with the term “tomgirl,” because it brought into focus the huge difference between a little girl who likes traditional boys’ activities – a tomboy – and a little boy who likes traditional girls’ activities. A tomboy is admired for her toughness and independence. But “tomgirl” connotes a negative idea: a little boy who is effeminate or weak. I thought to myself, this is huge. I can really help kids and parents by telling this story.
Q: What message do you hope to send readers?
A: I hope the book supports young boys and girls who are perceived as “different” because of their appearances or hobbies and at the same time encourages all kids to try many different kinds of activities. I also hope it provides comfort for worried parents. It is healthy for children to experiment, try on different identities, and discover themselves. They should do so openly and without fear. It is a funny, colorful book, because kids should also be able to laugh without malice—differences are fun!
Q: Does this book draw from personal experience—were you teased as a child or did you feel “different?” If so, can you recall a particular painful moment?
A: I was lucky because I received a lot of attention as a professional child actor. This allowed me to engage with all kinds of people, mostly adults with whom I was always most comfortable. But I felt out of step with kids my age. I was teased because I was not into sports, I was not a part of the social scene, and because I sang and danced. At that time those activities were unusual for a young boy, and not common among people in my community. I don’t have a really painful memory, but I have always felt, as I think many performers do, very shy and self-conscious, always on the outside looking in.
Q: On the flip side, how about the moment when you realized it was OK to be you, “different” or not?
A: When you battle prejudices and stereotypes, you are starting the fight to discover who you are. Everyone should take that journey. We must not give into someone else’s idea of who we should be. Rather, we have to try to find a way to be ourselves and live in the world. That is not to minimize the difficulty of growing pains and the time it takes to settle in to who you are. For me, there wasn’t a moment. But I often look back and think about how much happier I am without feelings of shame and embarrassment about who I am and what other people think about me.
Q: Many parents are becoming interested in how to tell children which activities are appropriate based on gender, if any. What advice do you have for parents who are trying to encourage their children to be themselves but are on the other hand are worried about them being teased?
A: As I have been saying, parents should not only permit kids to choose any activity, they should celebrate those choices, enjoy them! Parents should set a good example by behaving unconventionally from time to time. Interests usually come and go—my godson very rarely knits and sews any more.
Q: The book holds a strong and important message, but is delivered with whimsical colors that attract children. Who illustrated the picture book?
A: Margaret Chamberlain was the first choice by my publishers Frances Lincoln. Their practice is to keep the illustrator separated from the author so the illustrator can develop his or her own vision based on the text alone. I had no idea what to expect and was a little nervous. The illustrations were nothing like I imagined, but I love them!
It moves me greatly to see how such simplicity evokes complex feelings and thoughts. It has been really wonderful to see what kids of different ages focus on when they see the book— the girl in the wheel chair, the loooooong scarf, the instructions on how to make a cape. THAT is successful illustrating!
Q: While doing research for Made By Raffi, did you come across any stories or learn about things of which you were unaware?
A: I did find many troubling stories of children being teased because of perceived differences. Very disturbing are the stories of abuse heaped on children for being different not just by other children, but adults too. I am continually surprised by parents who consider themselves open-minded and modern but push their children toward conventional hobbies because they are worried about their kids “fitting in.” Why don’t they fight for their kids’ rights to choose for themselves? If all parents and teachers did this, the problem would disappear!
Q: What do you think parents can do to help a child who feels different and, on the other end of the equation, how can we teach kids to accept each other and alleviate bullying?
The first thing is to help the child have enough confidence and self-awareness to not fight back but engage with the bully. Maybe asking, “Why do you think it’s ok to be teasing me?” If both participants can start to engage, it helps each to understand their position and most likely it will stop. The other thing is to give the child language and reasoning. If the child doesn’t believe solidly that he has a right to be whoever he wants to be, then the bully will spot that weakness and exploit any vulnerability. Finally, I would add that parents cannot protect their children from everything. When they try, they only slow down their children’s own abilities to develop coping strategies. You can help prepare them for life, but they have to have their own experiences.
Q: What was your favorite book as a child?
A: I gravitated to Hans Christian Anderson tales, as they were so magical. I loved The Little Prince, Babar, and Curious George.
Q: What’s a favorite line from a beloved childhood book?
A: From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “I knew who I was this morning, but I’ve changed a few times since then.”
Q: Was there a particular fictional character from literature you identified with as a child — or still do?
A: Pinocchio and his longing to be a “real boy.”
Q: What is one thing you wish you could tell your childhood self now, as an adult?
A: Time is not your enemy, there is time to learn and make mistakes and explore the world…no need to rush.
Q: What is one thing you wish you could tell all kids, if they’d believe you?
A: Everyone else has the same fears and insecurities as you do. Be kind, and you will receive kindness.
Craig Pomranz is an internationally known singer and actor based in New York City, with a wide range of performance venues. This is his first book. For more information about Craig, visit www.craigpomranz.com. To order Made By Raffi, visit Amazon.