Craig Pomranz’s Made by Raffi (2014)

Made by Raffi (2014), written by Craig Pomranz and illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain follows Raffi as he identifies and explores activities that make him happy. The story takes place in the spring, and Chamberlain’s bright illustrations of green grass, pretty flowers, and clear blue skies set the tone of possibility and growth that is thematically explored by Pomranz.

Raffi is a young boy with warm peach-toned skin and longish dark hair. He feels different from children at school and can’t quite pinpoint what it is. Maybe it’s his size, the bright colors he wears, or his dislike of noise. On the playground he avoids his peers and tries to etch out a bit of solitary space. And, it is on the playground that he discovers what will become his new passion – creating clothing and accessories.

A teacher with golden-brown skin and a head of dark curls is knitting a scarf, which sparks Raffi’s curiosity. He asks about the project and she quickly offers to teach him to knit. He is so excited that when he returns to his cozy middle-class home after school, he tells his parents all about knitting and asks them to buy him supplies. At the shop he can’t choose a single color and decides to make his father a rainbow scarf, a move that not so subtly incorporates markers of queerness into the text.

That night, as his mother tucks him in, Raffi asks her if he is “girly” and if there is a such thing as a “tomgirl.” Raffi recognizes that a lot of the things he likes are “for girls” he just doesn’t know what to make of it.

His peers mock him for being different. Raffi just doesn’t quite fit in with girls or boys. That is until he is able to use his new found design talents to help make the school play a success!

With the help of his mom, Raffi creates a cape for the play’s lead on a short deadline. Everyone then decides Raffi is “cool” and they want him to help make their costumes!

This is a bright and attractive book with a clear positive message about self-discovery and self-confidence. Raffi is what I call a “flexible” character. Children with many “outsider” identities will likely be able to identify with him. His dislike for rough play and loud noise as well as his desire for solitude are something many children on the autism spectrum can relate to. His love for fashion and bright colors are often associated with gay culture. And, Raffi himself questions the normalcy of his gender asking if he is a “tomgirl.” By not clearly assigning Raffi a single identity, Pomranz leaves a lot open to interpretation.

I enjoy the text and think it will make a nice addition to classroom libraries. It is one of many picture books created over the last decade that troubles gender norms, especially masculine gender norms, by showing children it is okay to experience and identify beyond restrictive binaries.

I wish this message were played with in other ways in this, as well as other books for young readers. Most children’s picture books about children who challenge gender norms simultaneously produce heteronormative adult characters. For instance, although Raffi’s dad is accepting and proudly wears his rainbow scarf, it is his mother who gets him ready for bed, tucks him in, and helps him make a cape for the school play. Although, to be fair, at one point he does appear to help with dinner. It is also women teachers who encourage Raffi to embrace his creativity.

None of this detracts from the book’s wonderful message, but instead points to the simultaneous rejection of and capitulation to gender norms in even the most queer affirming places!

This review is part of my “Snapshots of LGBTQ Kid Lit” project. I’m working on a book, The New Queer Children’s Literature: Exploring the Principles and Politics of LGBTQ* Children’s Picture Books, which is under contract with the University Press of Mississippi. Part of my research is identifying and interpreting English-language children’s picture books with LGBTQ* content published in the US and Canada between 1979 and 2019. Follow my blog to follow my journey!

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