When Rafael, or “Raffi,” was nine-years-old, he coined the term, “tomgirl.” The girls and boys at his school were very sports-focused, but Raffi was not one for noise and rough play. He often felt at odds with the other children in the schoolyard, so he learned to knit – an activity he could do by himself on his long bus ride home. The other kids looked at him strangely and began to tease him for having a “girl’s hobby.”
Raffi soon went home to ask his mom if there was such a thing as a “tomgirl.”
Craig Pomranz is Raffi’s godfather and first-time author of Made by Raffi, a children’s novel about the boy – who is now applying to post-secondary schools – who was teased for doing something not typically associated with young male behaviour: Knitting.
“I wrote the book to support young girls and boys who are perceived as ‘different’ because of their appearance or hobbies,” Pomranz said.
“Some parents would be distraught hearing their child feels different. Raffi’s mom was worried that he was unhappy, but did not become upset in front of him. She simply told Raffi to be himself. I think Raffi coined the word, ‘tomgirl,’ which really surprised us. But, his mom was calm and encouraging and explained that she loved him unconditionally and that he is his own very special person,” he added.
In Made by Raffi, the main character receives outstanding support from his family to continue knitting, so he begins to make things for everyone – from a birthday gift for his father to costumes for a school play.
Pomranz wants to emphasize that in the short story, Raffy is not a victim.
“In fact, his being true to himself and helps everyone to eventually respect him for who he is,” Pomranz said. “Now, he has a lot more self confidence,” he added.
Taking inspiration from his godson’s story, Pomranz also lets his own experiences with bullying and teasing shine through in his book. As a kid, Pomranz said he felt like an outsider because he liked to sing and dance and as he grew older, he worked so much.
“I learned early on how to be myself, but it was sometimes lonely,” Pomranz said.
Teasing can be a part of growing up (I have some stories), but it can also have negative impacts on a person’s self-esteem. Trying to understand how we are as individuals and accepting ourselves while trying to fit in at the same time can be very challenging.
“Are we tall enough? Do we wear the right clothing? Is my nose too big?” Pomranz asked.
“Made by Raffi is an example of embracing one’s individuality. Especially now, it is so easy to bully others on the Internet. It is also so important to talk about bullying and understand the consequences of the behaviour,” he added.
Pomranz identified why it’s so important to bring awareness to the struggles young boys may experience about their identities: So much is lost when boys are encouraged to be tough and avoid untraditional activities.
“How many great artists, writers, dancers have never been encouraged to reach their potential? The human cost is great — little boys who don’t care so much about sports or hide their hobbies live in shame and think something is wrong with them, as Raffi did,” Pomranz said.
“There is also misogyny built into the system. A tomboy is perceived as assertive, athletic, strong and when she is young, even celebrated. Girls want to be like boys, but no boy would want to be like a girl. Unacceptable! I think all boys and girls struggle with identity, and adults do too, as they try to conform unnecessarily,” he added.
Pomranz wants Made by Raffi to be a light-hearted way for parents and teachers to start a serious conversation. First, he encourages others to find strategies to fight peer pressure and second, to remember kindness and compassion when facing someone who is “othered.”
“You have to start young with this message. It is a habit best inculcated at an early age,” Pomranz said.