Not that long ago, I received an e-mail from someone I didn’t know that had as the subject line “an interesting and important story.” Now, usually that sort of thing is from a Nigerian prince or a foreign lottery I have no recollection of entering, or sometimes an offer to enhance a body part, but this time, it was actually a thoughtful e-mail from Craig Pomranz, who had read some of my stories about children’s books and wanted to share his work with me (and the readers at NewsWhistle). He sent me a courtesy copy of his children’s story, Made By Raffi, and I put it to the test right away by sharing it with my older daughter, age ten. She’s a bit old for picture books now (much preferring to spend her time reading long fantasy novels about dragons and adventures), but she liked this one a lot and immediately added it to her younger sister’s bookshelf, saying that she thought it would be great for younger kids.
Craig was also kind enough to answer some questions for me, as I perceived pretty quickly that he was a very interesting and important (not to mention talented) person. Here’s what he had to say.
The NewsWhistle Q&A with Craig Pomranz
Name: Craig Pomranz
Date: December 8, 2016
Hometown: St. Louis
Current town: New York City
Occupation: saloon singer, actor, song stylist, author
So…you have a successful career as a cabaret singer, performing frequently in NYC and London. What made you decide to write a children’s book? What was your inspiration?
Looking back I realize I always wrote. Usually treatments, scripts, even thank you notes (even after people stopped writing them). I never looked at it as a career, and yet it was always there beneath the surface. Like many writers I have read about, I always had paper, or a notepad, or now my phone to text myself, for notes on anything and everything. When the incident happened with my godson I told his mother she should write about it, perhaps it would be a good play. She declined and I went home, sat at my computer and quickly completed a first draft.
The “incident” I refer to is the heart of the book: my godson was feeling out of sorts and when his mother asked him if something was wrong, he looked up at her and asked, “Is there such a thing as a tomgirl?” Coining a term that is new astonished me. It was so layered with ideas of how our society stereotypes. There are so many questions. Why is anything feminine a negative idea in our world? Why is a tomboy now a relatively positive idea? Perhaps meaning that a girl is assertive, strong–and yet the idea of a boy wanting to do anything perceived as feminine is negative and considered weak? How do boys and girls live up to these entrenched stereotyped notions and why should they? How much stress does this cause? There are a myriad of questions.
I love the theme of diversity and inclusion in your book, Made by Raffi. It reminds me a bit of the Free to Be You and Me musical of the 1970s, and its emphasis on not stereotyping by gender.
Although I know of Marlo Thomas’ Free to Be You and Me, I don’t really know it well. It had a profound effect on a lot of people. The ideas brought forth in Made by Raffi and similar books are not new. But this year’s presidential campaign shows us that sexism is still a dynamic issue for many people. We believe we have conquered so many old-fashioned notions and, yet, when we look at entertainment for kids, there is still a lot of stereotyping. A television executive recently told me that there are no children’s TV shows with little boys who are not into sports. Books that deal with themes of diversity are still a small percentage of what is out in the marketplace. Fortunately, organizations like We Need Diverse Books are challenging the status quo.
What books do you particularly admire?
I’m very much a book person! Here’s my latest book review for NewsWhistle, a memoir by a surgeon dying of cancer. And at the bottom of the page you can see links to lots of other books, many of which I’ve reviewed.
As far as children’s books go, there are many wonderful ones, but a few favorites of mine are Charlotte’s Web, The Phantom Tollbooth, The Westing Game, and Alice in Wonderland. And for picture books (and baby gifts) I really love On the Night You Were Born by Nancy Tillman and The Three Questions by Jon Muth.
Courtesy of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
What has been the critical reception of your book so far? Is it a hit with parents, with teachers, with children?
A-mazing! Raffi is available in eight languages and 11 countries to date, and I hope it will keep growing. It has been so satisfying and rewarding to talk with parents, journalists, and teachers about their experiences with the book and the reactions of young people. I received an email from a man in Istanbul who wrote: “Today I enjoyed to preorder 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.” A little girl from Korea asked her mother to reach out to my publisher so she could send me her design for a scarf Raffi could knit. I treasure the photos of little boys and their knitting projects I have received. I tried to approach the book with a light touch — it is supposed to be funny! I think it helps parents and teachers to talk to children if they start with a smile.
But there have been bumps in the road. In Italy, the first country to buy the book, we were asked if the illustrator could shorten Raffi’s hair — they felt long hair on a boy would put off readers. A publisher in Turkey finally said that the book was too controversial at this time. Most shocking to me was an email from the editor of a Texas newspaper who wanted me to know he loved the book but felt he couldn’t review it in his paper because it would not be accepted by his readers.
Parents, caregivers, and teachers tell me they love the many layers of Made by Raffi. I think the book resonates with almost everyone who reads it. After all, who hasn’t felt different at some point, whether you are too tall, have freckles (I had a lot of freckles), an accent, or so many other things? I was particularly moved when some parents wrote to say they recognized that their child might BE the bully — they found the book a useful way to start the conversation. Others wrote to thank me for not making Raffi a victim of bullies; instead, he finds a way to pursue his interests ignoring the negative remarks and earns the respect of his peers. I hope that all kids understand, as the mother in the book says: “You are your own wonderful self and we are very proud of you.” If we can help a child gain some self-assurance and know they have support we are doing a lot!
I’m so glad to hear that you’ve had so many positive experiences with the reception of your book. Do you have another book in the works? Or in an idea phase?
TONS! I am very excited about my latest book, which addresses the difficult problem of body image from a child’s point of view. I hope it will help relieve the stress children develop about their looks, especially given the way body image is represented in the media. But it is a very funny and positive story. I really hope to empower children with my books.
Are you pleased with the illustrations for your book? How did you go about finding an illustrator? What was the process like of having your story visualized?
I had no experience in these matters, it was my first book! My publisher sent me some potential illustrators and asked for my opinion — her first idea was Margaret Chamberlain. Margaret really had a specific look, with fun, lively, colorful pictures. The vibrancy in her work on Made by Raffi really helps lighten the potentially serious topic, and adds so much to the text. Interestingly, they preferred no communication between me and the illustrator at first. They wanted Margaret to interpret the text in her own way. Once she completed her first illustrations, we then collaborated on different scene ideas. Then we got input from marketers in various countries. As I mentioned, one country asked if we would shorten Raffi’s hair. The original character was written as blond but one marketer asked if we minded giving Raffi brown hair to improve sales in Asia and South American countries. It was fascinating.
Do you have a favorite children’s book (besides your own)? Why?
Of course Dr. Seuss…talk about broadening one’s imagination! When I was a bit older, I loved The Borrowers series, The Little Prince, Alice in Wonderland, and a book of collected pieces written by and for children that always stayed with me is The Me Nobody Knows.
Do you have a favorite book for adults?
I am a collector of non-fiction and biographies. Growing up I read mostly scripts and lived for any and all books about the theatre, including a favorite 84, Charing Cross Road! But I treasure memories of reading Gentleman’s Agreement, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, To Kill a Mockingbird. I also love the Willa Cather short stories.
What is a movie that everyone should see?
I am a devotee of the older films, but it is impossible to pick one! My Man Godfrey is a sexy comedy in which Carole Lombard somehow makes us fall in love with her portrayal of a spoiled and obnoxious rich girl. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant are amazing in the always-relevant His Girl Friday. Night of the Hunter, Charles Laughton’s riveting masterpiece, should not be missed. The Shop Around the Corner is a romantic comedy where you find yourself really hoping that two lonely, no-longer-young people can let down their guard and embrace love. It was made into a Broadway musical She Loves Me and the film musical In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson. Later it was adapted for Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in the popular You’ve Got Mail. However, the original is still the best. Finally, if I had to pick a Hitchock (and why wouldn’t I?) it would be Shadow of a Doubt. Teresa Wright stops your heart as the brave young teenager who loses her innocence as she gradually sees her beloved favorite uncle for what he really is. Although I am also a huge fan of Doris Day and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much are terrific! Hitchcock is always a good bet!
What is your favorite place to perform as a singer?
Well, I have a special relationship with my fans and they are surprisingly different in different places. In London, they listen silently, and hold applause until the pianist plays his very last note…that took a while to get used to. In New York, audiences talk to me during the show, applaud loudly during the final last notes of the song. In LA, they are serious students of the Great American Songbook and Sinatra-type songs. They like to stay after the show to talk to me about each song and why I chose it. I love performing live because there is nothing like the immediate response of an audience.
What is the best thing to do in NYC? In London?
Both are world-class cities with exciting theater, art, music, as well as parks, historical sites, and delicious food! I wouldn’t know where to start. Most important is when you visit New York is to get away from midtown, ride the subway and go to the High Line. The High Line is a park made from old railroad tracks along the west side of Manhattan. Find the neighborhoods where people live, like the West Village, the Upper East and West Sides, Brooklyn and Queens. That is the charming New York! London is charming on almost every street but I would say don’t miss a West End show and if it is spring or summer be sure to walk in the parks. Also, both cities offer amazing food. Also, walk, walk, walk…these are the most wonderful places to walk around and people watch.
What is the best advice that you’ve been given?
You can work hard, but always make time for friends and family. With each passing year they become more important.
If you could go back in time and do one thing over, what would you do?
No regrets! I made the best decisions I could at the time.
Last but not least, is there anything you want to pitch, promote, or discuss?
I really would love to plug the song, “Different,” that composers Amanda McBroom (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”) and Michele Brourman (The Land Before Time series) wrote for me inspired by my children’s book. Kids should be singing it in schools, it is so warm and charming. Subscribe to my YouTube Channel!
Lead-In Image Courtesy of Craig Pomranz
Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com
Other Q&As by Laura LaVelle
* Alexi Auld, author
* Simeon Bankoff, Executive Director, Historic Districts Council
* Eric Bennett, author
* Alexander Campos, Executive Director, Center for Book Arts
* Mark Cheever, Friends of Hudson River Park
* Yvonne Chu, Kimera Design
*Sarah Cox, Write A House
* Betsy Crapps, founder of Mom Prom
* Margaret Dorsey, anthropologist
* Mamady Doumbouya, Jonathan Halloran, & Robert Hornsby, founders of American Homebuilders of West Africa
* Kinsey Dyckman, Board Member, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Rhonda Eleish & Edie van Breems, interior designers
* Bob Freeman, Committee on Open Government
* Alex Gruhin, co-founder of Nightcap Riot
* Leslie Green Guilbault, artist, potter
* Garnet Heraman, brand strategist for Karina Dresses, serial entrepreneur
* Bill Harley, children’s entertainer and storyteller
* Meredith Sorin Horsford, Executive Director, Dyckman Farmhouse Museum
* Margaret Pritchard Houston, author and youth worker
* Camilla Huey, artist, designer
*Dr. Brett Jarrell & Dr. Walter Neto, founders of Biovita
* Beth Johnson, Townsend Press editor
* Mahanth Joishy, founder of United States – India Monitor
* Alexandra Kennedy, Executive Director, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
* Jim Knable, playwright and musician
* Jonathan Kuhn, Director of Art & Antiquities for NYC Parks Department
* Elizabeth Larison, Director of Programs for apexart
* Ann Lawrence, Co-Founder of Pink51
* Jessica Lee, dancer, Sable Project Administrator
* Najaam Lee, artist and sickle cell advocate
*Anthony Monaghan, documentary filmmaker
*Ellie Montazeri, Tunisian towel manufacturer
* Heather-Marie Montilla, Executive Director, Pequot Library
* Yurika Nakazono, rainwear designer, Terra New York
* Jibrail Nor, drummer
* Alice Quinn, Executive Director, Poetry Society of America
* Ryan Ringholz, children’s shoe designer, Plae Shoes
* Alanna Rutherford, Board Member, Andrew Glover Youth Program
* Deborah Ryan & Frank Vagnone, Historic House Anarchists
* Lawrence Schwartzwald, photographer
* Peter Sís, writer and illustrator
* Patrick Smith, author and pilot
* Juliet Sorensen, law professor
* Jeffrey Sumber, psychotherapist and author
* Rich Tafel, life coach and Swedenborgian minister
*Jonathan Todres, law professor
* Andra Tomsa, creator of SPARE app
* Maggie Topkis, mystery fiction publisher
* Carol Ward, Executive Director, Morris-Jumel Mansion
* Adamu Waziri, creator of children’s television program Bino and Fino
* Ekow Yankah, law professor