Gender role and gender policing are two terms weighing heavy on my mind lately, especially how “hands on” or “hands off” an approach I should take with my children. Even though Made by Raffi was released about a year ago, the book’s careful consideration when dealing with a child’s questions about how they fit in will continue to be relevant for some time to come.
From the back cover blurb: Raffi feels different from the other children at school—he doesn’t like noisy games, and sometimes he gets teased. But when Raffi discovers knitting and sewing, everything changes, and everyone wants to have something that is—Made by Raffi.
The story begins with Raffi questioning his differences. He doesn’t quite fit in with the other children and often finds himself sitting quietly by himself or with a teacher. One afternoon he finds a teacher knitting and is interested in the craft. The teacher doesn’t hesitate to teach him and sparks an interest he takes home. His parents are super supportive, and Raffi decides to knit a scarf for his dad’s birthday. Raffi’s new-found crafting skill does incite some teasing as he knits while he is on the school bus, but it doesn’t deter him from finishing his project.
About halfway through the book, Raffi and his mother have a touching conversation where he asks her if he is strange, weird, girly, or a tomgirl. His mother’s amazing answer now holds a special place in my heart.
The next day his teacher gives assignments for a play, and Raffi comes up with an idea to make a cape for the prince character. Raffi works hard and sews a cape, which impresses his teacher and classmates. The book has a feel-good ending and teaches children and adults some valuable lessons without being preachy.
My wish is that this book ends up in every elementary and primary school library. Wanting to know more about what went into the creation of Made by Raffi, the author, Craig Pomranz, was kind enough to answer some questions about word choice, parental roles, and the song inspired by his book.
I’m always interested in the word choice for children’s books, especially when the books are targeted toward teaching our kids valuable life lessons. Do you think there is a difference between the terms teasing and bullying?
There is definitely a line between teasing and bullying. Leaving out physical bullying, which is easy to identify, the difference is primarily intention. Teasing generally is playful, a mild poke that is not meant to hurt. Teasing can be a non-threatening way to raise an issue or solve a problem. It can strengthen a relationship, creating a sense of affection, intimacy and be a gentle way of reminding a loved one not to become too self-important and learn to laugh at their own foibles. But when you WANT to really hurt someone, mock and taunt them, point out weaknesses that cannot be changed or improved, reveal private details—this is where you cross the line. However, intention of the teaser isn’t everything. Some people cannot tolerate teasing, and the motivation of the teaser doesn’t really matter.
Until a few weeks ago, I’d never heard the term “tomgirl” used to describe a boy. I have a daughter who wears the term “tomboy” like a badge of honor. I think someone calling my son a “tomgirl” would make me uncomfortable. When was the first time you heard this term used, and how did it make you feel? Why did you decide to use this term in your book?
The first time I heard the term tomgirl was when my godson asked the question about himself, “Is there such a thing as a tomgirl?” It was a light bulb moment. As you mention, being a tomboy in our society is looked on as a positive thing, at least up to a point. She is assertive and strong. Built into this value system is overt sexism: Any girl would want to be more like a boy, but what boy wants to be more like a girl. The very concept of tomgirl in our misogynistic society is negative. I only have questions, not answers. Why is having feminine attributes a negative? What does being feminine mean? Is it really feminine to be creative, comforting, and emotional?
Recently, I wrote a parenting essay for WWAC about allowing my son to paint his fingernails pink, and I took a passive role in his defense. I feel that Raffi’s parents also take a passive role in allowing Raffi to make his own choices and providing support in the home only. This seems to go against the mainstream idea of telling adults about teasing and bullying and the expectation of adults to take an active role in stopping this sort of behavior. Was it a conscious choice to have Raffi not tell his mom about the teasing and for his teacher not to interfere or correct the children who are teasing him?
Yes, I was seeking to show an alternative path. As you point out, the conventional wisdom is that children to report everything to parents and, in turn, the authorities at school. With Made by Raffi, I was hoping to empower kids to find another approach. In real life as in the book, Raffi’s mom says, “You are very … Raffi. You are our wonderful boy with your own special interests. Dad and I are very proud of you.” She is supportive, yes, and also validating, giving Raffi the strength to prevail and continue pursuing his interests. This is a critical life skill. Parents will not always be around (and complaining to the teacher doesn’t help much anyway). We all have to learn to face and ignore the pressure of social control and conformity. Successful, creative people often talk about how they had to move beyond the naysayers.
It is interesting to me that even the most evolved parents who cheerfully allow their son to paint his fingernails at home, often suggest they do it only at home, fearing what might happen out in the world. Protecting your child is understandable, but they are sending another clear message—being different is negative and dangerous.
I read in another interview of yours that this book is inspired by an incident with your godson. Without getting too personal, what was his reaction to the book?
The “real” Raffi could not be more proud. He has shared the book with his friends and teachers. He is older now, and he loves knowing that his story is helping kids today.
In my opinion, the book has a quiet overall tone that matches Raffi’s personality. How will the song “Different” compliment the already established tone of the book?
I am so excited about the song. You will be the first to write about it as I am just now going to release it. Michele Brourman (The Land Before Time) wrote the music, which has an easy familiar pop-like anthem feel, and Amanda McBroom (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”) wrote the lyrics, which touch upon all of the issues in the book. We are all individuals and “Different.” Yes is is a contemplative song, and the lyrics say we are all “Different, Special, Perfect.” Interestingly, a company doing research on children’s rare diseases is interested in using the song to help kids who feel different, and an environmental group thinks it could help teach biodiversity!
There have been fantastic reviews for Made by Raffi, and I would also recommend this book to my friends and family as a positive discussion about gender roles. Have there been any negative responses to your book and how have you dealt with them?
There have not been any negative reviews to my knowledge. One reviewer found it hard to believe that the character of Raffi would come up with the idea of the chair and sewing. I should have written to him that in fact, that it is exactly what happened. Raffi began watching the reality program Project Runway, and in one episode he noticed one of the contestants putting fabric on the back of a chair and pinning it, and that is exactly what he did. The only unfortunate responses were from editors who wrote to me to say how they really love the book, but felt they couldn’t write about it because their particular part of the country was not ready. One editor wrote, “We ARE in Southern …” How unfortunate.
Are you working on any future books that deal specifically with gender roles?
I am working with publishers on some books about empowering children to erase gender stereotypes and address difficult issues, like body image and understanding illness and death. We are really fortunate to live in a world where these issues can be talked about! My goal is to foster conversation about any and every difficult topic. Children are resilient and can be positively impacted by these conversations at a very early age.
Thank you, Craig, for stopping by and answering my questions.
Made by Raffi inspires conversation about gender roles, a song, and will hopefully inspire you!