“It seems that every day there’s a news item on an issue of gender roles. This last week a principal told a boy he couldn’t bring his My Little Pony lunchbox to school because it was a “trigger” for teasing and bullying and a girl was expelled from a Christian school because of her short hair, perceived masculine look, and interest in sports. Recently a woman in Portland killed her child of four because she thought he “acted, walked and spoke like a gay person.” Author, Craig Pomranz
Nine year-old Raffi (Rafael) was unusually full of nervous energy, not sleeping. When asked whether everything was ok, the boy complained of feeling out of place at school. His classmates talked about soccer and football; they used the word dude. “I just don’t understand it. Is there such a thing as a tomgirl?” he wondered aloud. It was 2003. Eleven years later, an Urban Dictionary definition in part reads “A man or male identified individual that does not conform to heterosexual/heterosexist masculine behavior…”
In hopes of offering the boy something all his own with which to focus creative energy and perhaps dispel anxiety, his godfathers- Pomranz is one, gave Raffi a set of knitting needles and the book “Kids Knitting” by Melanie Falick. The volume features photos of boys knitting as well as girls. (In Pomranz’s story, Raffi asks his teacher to show him how to knit.)
It wasn’t easy for Raffi, but he stuck with it getting help at school and from the author’s friend Loren Silber who taught knitting at Barnard. Precocious and intrepid, the newbe hobbyist rode the subway from his home at Manhattan Towers to her college age knitting club.“He was teased, but not badly,” the author tells me. “He’d comment on their not understanding.” The boy’s first, handmade scarf, of loosely knit heather wool, was a birthday present for Pomranz. It was enormously long and met with great praise. (In the book, it’s a gift to Raffi’s dad.) Other scarves followed.
Discovering West 79th Street’s Knitty City which held regular gatherings (including a Men’s Night), Raffi offered to sweep the floors and clean in exchange for yarn. That summer, he formed a knitting club at camp enticing two other boys as well as girls.
In 6th grade, he started watching Project Runway and buying fabric with his allowance, Pomranz recalls. “He loved pictures of historic figures wearing elegant clothes, so when a school play featured a royal prince, he offered to make a cape. It was his first sewing project and, without a book or lesson, he pinned and hemmed it using techniques he’d seen on the show. We were all just astonished.” The piece was purple velvet on one side, yellow on the other. It tied at the neck and included an ingeniously raised collar, stiffened by cardboard. (Illustrations in the book are almost a how-to. Raffi’s classmates made a big fuss, convinced he would be a famous designer some day.
Admiration was a new experience. He learned there was value in being different. It changed his attitude. The book ends with Raffi sitting on the school steps knitting. A boy playing ball asks what he’s making. It’s a present for his mom. “Cool,” his friend says.
The real Raffi started creating dresses, muslin first, just as contestants did on the show. “He was hugely frustrated when he made his first piece because the model couldn’t get her head through the neckline.” Pomranz had designer labels made: The Raffi-Lauren Collection. There were classes at FIT. Today, at 20, Raffi still occasionally sews or knits though his main interest is theater.
Craig Pomranz, an actor/singer by profession, protests he knows nothing about children’s books. You’re likely to differ after reading this one. First put together when his godson was nine and inspired by Raffi’s experience, the story collected dust until a social conversation a couple of years ago landed on gender orientation. One thing lead to another and Made By Raffi found its way to Frances Lincoln Publishers in the U.K. The large format, hard covered book, with cheery, color illustrations by Margaret Chamberlain, will be released abroad in June under their imprint Janetta Otter-Barry Books – initially in English, Italian, Norwegian, Dutch, and Danish. What appears to be a simple story embraces being different by using knitting in a way that might stand in for anything. The story is written on a level any child can understand. And it’s charming.
“How much misery and wasted talent is caused by artificial ideas about appropriate activities for boys and girls?” Pomranz sighs. “I hope kids discover that being a boy or girl is not a sharply defined role, but can encompass all interests.”