By: Amber Leventry
Raffi is a schoolboy who doesn’t like rough and rowdy play. He likes calm and quiet; he dresses a bit differently than the other boys; he feels different. Like most kids, Raffi isn’t sure what that means, but then he finds his passion when a teacher teaches him how to knit. Raffi suddenly realizes the struggle—and importance—of what it means to be himself.
Made by Raffi, written by Craig Pomranz and illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain, is a children’s book that tackles the issue of gender stereotypes. The struggle for Raffi is a common one many school age kids, specifically boys, deal with every day. Our children are being bombarded with images and messages of what it “means” to be a boy or girl.
In a brilliant project done by SheKnows and Common Sense Media, boys were asked what it meant to be manly. The answers ranged from comparing manly to being emotionless to manly being the opposite of being girly; the boys understood that both meanings carried negative connotations, yet still defined the word the way they commonly hear it described.
This particular set of boys didn’t agree with those definitions, though. They know what society thinks, but they also think manly is being yourself. That is usually easier said than done. Kids can be cruel, and bullying to the point of making someone feel miserable happens daily at school and online.
Pomranz wrote Made by Raffi to let kids know that it is okay to follow their interests and to experiment with different styles even when they go against the grain of gender stereotypes. When I asked Pomranz what motivated him to write a book on this topic he told me, “I hope the book will be a comfort to kids who feel different from others and to remind everyone to be kind when they see another kid who is nonconformist.” He also wants to start conversations that lead to understanding and appreciation.
When Raffi starts to knit at school, he is teased. Later that night he asks his mother if knitting makes him weird or girly. His mother replies, “No, Raffi. I think you are very…Raffi.” His parents’ support gives Raffi confidence. Despite being teased, Raffi keeps knitting and surprises his classmates by sewing a cape for a prince costume in an upcoming school play. Raffi’s talent fulfills a need and he goes from zero to hero.
Most stories don’t have such open-minded parents or classmates so quick to embrace someone’s differences, but the book’s message is a valuable one. It can be hard to be yourself when who you are is different than what your peers consider to be normal. But with a little confidence your differences just might save the day.
Made by Raffi is for written for ages 5-9, but my four year old daughter not only understood and loved the message, but needed the reminder. Even with two mamas who are constantly challenging gender stereotypes, opinions of her preschool classmates can be more influential. Definitions of what it means to be a girl or boy are determined at a very early age through toys and books. We need more books like Made by Raffi to send our children a more open and accepting definition of what it means to happily be you.