New York-based singer Craig Pomranz knows something about being different. As a child growing up in a St. Louis suburb, Pomranz was an introvert drawn to theater arts. He was ostracized and teased by classmates.
But the loving support of his parents, teachers and a community of fellow artists enabled him to pursue his passions in theater, music and dance. Eventually, he made his way to New York City where he forged a successful career as a dancer, actor and cabaret singer, garnering a substantial global following.
Over time, Pomranz came to see that whether someone who's "different" ends up being bullied or accepted or admired often depends on others’ degree of understanding of personal uniqueness and its possible allures. And so, he decided to do something to further that understanding.
Inspired by his own experiences and those of his godson, Raffi, Pomranz wrote an upbeat children’s book, Made by Raffi, that could help kids and grown-ups alike embrace difference and ward off destructive teasing and bullying.
A Radiant Universe of Color, Compassion and Diversity
Delightfully illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain, the book focuses on Raffi, a young, shy boy who shuns boisterous sports and sits alone much of the time until a teacher who knits during class breaks teaches him some basic knitting strokes.
He discovers a luminous world of colorful wool, thread and fabric and a passion for turning them into original designs — something that comes in handy when the lead actor in the school play needs a costume.
Filled with a cast of diverse kids and understanding adults, this tale attests to the healing power of creativity and shows how an open mind and heart and an appreciative outlook can banish prejudice and exclusionary behavior — at any age.
As many workers know all too well, bullying is not reserved to the school environment. Research by Zogby International found that 37 percent of Americans report being bullied on the job. The book's compassionate story speaks to anyone who has felt sidelined and oppressed, as well as to those who'd like to help shape solutions.
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I recently spoke to Pomranz about his book and what propelled him to write it. Here are highlights from our chat:
Next Avenue: Tell me about the book’s origins.
Pomranz: The story is based on a real-life incident with my godson, Raffi, who was adopted when he was four from Russia and faced many challenges. I wanted to find some way to help him cope with his stresses.
He had a two-hour-long bus ride to his school. One year, he asked for knitting needles and yarn for his birthday and I bought them. I’ve always viewed knitting as a comforting solitary activity. I thought that Raffi could use his bus time to learn to focus and read instructions, use his hands to boost dexterity and experience the joy of creating. And since there is such a wide variety of products, who knew what he could come up with?
He really took to it, though he was taunted on the school bus — whether because he was knitting or just because he was smaller than most of the kids and socially inhibited.
The scarf he began knitting on the bus grew to 20 feet long — he just couldn’t stop. He started making clothing with, and for, my friend Lauren, his muse, and I made him labels for the items that said: "The Raffi-Lauren Collection.” Soon, he started knitting for everyone.
And then, when there was a chance to do something for the kids in his class play, Raffi took it upon himself to do so and that’s when everything changed.
He started watching Project Runway and on his own figured out how to drape, pin and sew fabric. His creativity touched everyone and the conversation changed. They saw his essential difference as exciting and fun.
To what extent was the book also influenced by your personal experiences as a child?
I was very shy as a child and I wasn’t doing the usual things that boys were expected to do — team sports and such. But I wasn’t shy about performing in front of people.
I was into acting and dancing and I could recite well. By the time I was 11 years old, I was participating in and winning Shakespearean recitation contests. Because I was doing those things, I was teased, but I also got a lot of attention and love.
In the story, Raffi is mentored by a teacher who shows him how to knit. I was mentored by well-known actress Lynn Cohen. From the age of 11 through 16, I was part of a group in St. Louis who did serious theater under Lynn’s tutelage. She taught us all the discipline and history of theater and what it meant.
In the book, Raffi’s mom says: 'Raffi, you are our wonderful boy with your own special interests. Dad and I are very proud of you.' That’s a very powerful comment.
The real-life Raffi (as well as the character in the book) was very lucky that way. He had a whole support system that was just really wonderful for him. I didn’t have that same support.
My parents were very proud of me and of my accomplishments. But my three older brothers didn’t understand what I was doing and, later on in life, I found out that they, in fact, resented it. They respected my talent, but it was not a part of their lives and who they were.
At one very poignant moment of self-reflection in the book, Raffi wonders if there’s such a thing as a 'tomgirl.'
I was so struck by the real-life child making up this word 'tomgirl' — you know, out of the mouths of babes and all.
I immediately thought that there's a story here, an important one. In our misogynistic society, being a tomboy is not so bad, but a tomgirl is. The term 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 and a conversation needs to be had.
I felt it was important to explore the connotations and that’s actually what drove me to write the book. The original title of the book was Tomgirl, Raffi Loves to Knit, but I changed it when the publisher said that the term was too controversial.
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You recently crossed a big birthday milestone. To what extent do you think that impacted your desire to write this book?
Everyone says that in show business one never grows up, so I guess I don't think of the number and just live my life. What I do know is I like to speak my mind. When I see or hear of an injustice or lack of communication, I want things to be better understood and heard.
Having been teased as a child, I know that this has a continuing effect into adulthood and that when things are communicated effectively, things do change. And it’s amazing how these things that happened way back when are still triggers for us in our 40s and 50s and even later.
Am I seeing things differently now than I did years ago? I’m far less judgmental and I’m perhaps less self-conscious. I wanted to impart a little bit of that to young people by telling them to be yourself, stop worrying about what everyone else thinks and that time is a great healer.
So what are your big hopes for the book?
We’re lucky enough to live in an age when the conversation of differences can be had world-wide. I want to support young boys and girls who are perceived as 'different' because of their appearance, abilities or hobbies and encourage all kids to try many different kinds of activities to find out who they might be in life. Supporting is very different from encouraging.
I really hope the book also helps parents of all types of families to be kind and think about the kind of support they give. I was thinking that a cheerful, even funny, book about a 'different' kid could spark some conversations to help the kids and also give some courage to the parents.
And how have people responded to the book?
The response has been unbelievable. The book’s been translated into many languages and I’ve received emails from as far away as Turkey and Norway. A man in Istanbul wrote: 'Today I enjoyed to preorder [sic] your beautiful and meaningful children book for my cousin. Especially here in Turkey we need to learn respect to the one who is different than us. Thanks for your effort to make the world a better place to live.'