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Lit Crit: The Rainbow Fish

Lit Crit: The Rainbow Fish

During the last stretch of the 2008 presidential election, which seems like some time ago, there was a word, a concept, and an indictment being bandied around, and that word was socialism. The exact charge or intention of trotting out this old divisive language is relatively unimportant, considering the outcome of the election, but it was remarkable to note how emotional the concept of socialism still is.

I call this recent memory to attention because it directly relates to my latest children’s literature criticism/deconstruction (what have you), Marcus Pfister’s beloved classic The Rainbow Fish.

This book (for clarity’s sake, I am not referring to the animated series of the same name, nor am I addressing the many licensing spin-offs or the series of books that followed the original publication) is so enormously problematic and inherently flawed in its moral, message, and delivery that it is hard to just know where to begin.

For those of you unfamiliar with this fable, it involves a beautifully ornamented fish with rainbow scales (the titular fish of the story) and his relationship (or lack thereof) with his fellow, less flamboyant, ocean denizens. The rainbow fish is proud, vain, and electively isolated from his fellow sea creatures. When one modest fish asks the rainbow fish for a handout in the form of one of his scales, the indignant rainbow fish responds with a resolute, “Never!” Soon the rainbow fish learns that, although he is singularly beautiful, he is also supremely lonely, as the other fish obviously resent him for his beauty and conceit. At the urging of a wise octopus, he opts to give away all but one of his prized rainbow scales to his fellow fish in exchange for popularity, acceptance, and appreciation.

This book is so enormously polarizing; it might as well be the stem cell debate of children’s literature. One of the largest sticking points for some vociferous critics of this book is the idea that this fable promotes socialism. As Neal Boortz, Libertarian/right wing radio personality, likes to call it “one of the biggest pieces of trash children’s books ever published” as well as accusing it of being socialist propaganda and a manual that “teaches our kids that it is just not nice for them to own anything that other kids don’t have.”

While I hardly agree with Mr. Boortz, and find the socialism subtext to be fairly innocuous and anything but frightening, I will say that he is not the only one that brings up the matter of socialism in reference to this book. One cursory glance at the Amazon product page for The Rainbow Fish, and you will swiftly understand the sort of ire and passion that this book elicits. Issues ranging from the aforementioned socialism to brazen materialism make up just a few of the reoccurring complaints of concerned parents and readers alike.

For me, this is a book with enormous potential to impart a sense of compassion and perspective, but instead it makes countless wrong turns and winds up being about as valuable and appealing as a bucket of chum. The rainbow fish is presented as hopelessly vain and indifferent to his fellow fish, and is only able to digest the extent of his isolation when another fish makes what seems like a highly unreasonable request for the rainbow fish to give up a piece of himself. The rainbow fish is only redeemed in the eyes of the other fish (and possibly the author) once he strips himself of his individuality and, basically, pays the other fish to like him. This exchange says nothing about the value and integrity of friendship and instead encourages people to share, solely to win favor with those who would otherwise despise you.

Where this book could easily be teaching honest lessons about the value of communication and sharing, it teaches flawed lessons about being liked and losing yourself to mass popularity.

I will admit that sharing is a tricky lesson to successfully convey to a child, and sometimes you need the most basic of language and symbolism to get the ball rolling. However, as we learned from The Giving Tree, teaching the wrong lesson about sharing is just as bad, if not worse, than avoiding issues of fairness and kindness altogether.

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

10 comments

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3:49AM PDT on May 17, 2012

I bought Mole Music, My Friends, The Snowy Day, Joseph Had a Little Overcoat and The Adventures of Polo after you recommended them and loved them all, What else is on your list of brilliant kids' books?

8:37PM PDT on Mar 22, 2010

Kids can make up their own mind about the stories they read. It is how they learn all the things that we adults think we have to vet before they can make up their own minds about it.

2:13PM PST on Jan 11, 2010

Very well written article. I was just asked to read this book to the group of my son's preschoolers, so I had a look at it beforehand and was relieved to see that others don't like its message as well. I opted for another book instead.

In my opinion, there is a HUGE difference between sharing and giving away. With sharing, you lend your property to others and get it back. I think that's a healthy value to teach children. If you don't want to share, don't flaunt it. But this book is about giving property away, and for the wrong reasons, as you pointed out.

My husband had mentioned that if the fancy fish taught the others how to achieve the beautiful scales he got, they could have those shiny scales, too. I think that's a better lesson.

11:14AM PST on Feb 16, 2009

Thank you to everyone for your comments.
Nicole H. recently posted a comment asking me if there were any children's books that I like. And the answer is a resounding "Yes!" While I have been critical of some children's books in the past (namely, The Runaway Bunny), others I have just pointed out problems with their narrative (The Giving Tree). But to answer your question; here is a partial list of children's books I love:

Mole Music - David McPhail

Fox in Socks - Dr. Seuss

My Friends - Taro Gomi

The Snowy Day - Ezra Jack Keats

Joseph Had a Little Overcoat - Simms Taback

The Adventures of Polo - Regis Faller


8:35PM PST on Feb 15, 2009

Maybe I missed a post, but are there any children's books you *like*?

5:48PM PST on Feb 12, 2009

I don't understand what the issue is here. I fear that people are taking this book way too seriously and pretending that it has some hidden "scary" message to it. For goodness' sake, it is merely a children's book about sharing with others and how fulfilled one can feel for doing so! Young chidren aren't going to be searching for nonexistent propaganda in this story, good grief! It's supposed to gently show kids how good it can make them feel to share their toys with a friend. It's for the kids who need to learn to share...

11:32AM PST on Feb 12, 2009

Thanks for the latest edition of your take on children's literature. I see some similarities between this book and The Giving Tree that you also wrote about. In both, the act of selfless giving is take too far. . . .leaving the giver with nothing except for the satisfaction of having made someone else happy. I personally cannot think of any relationships that work like this in the real world. Let's not teach out kids to sacrifice themselves just to win over others.

11:03AM PST on Feb 12, 2009

I found this book disturbing because it basically says that if you don't have any friends you can essentially buy some by giving away the things about yourself that are most cherished. What kind of message does that send to our kids? Not one I want to send. I am all for sharing to promote togetherness and healthy relationships, but this is extreme!

10:22AM PST on Feb 12, 2009

It is a fairy tale. The books I write are true, about our family. After adopting a dog from the shelter, Jason (child in book 2) decides to collect food and rags for the shelter. I love this kid. Check out my web site:http://www.smokeysbooks.com Book 2 will be out in June.

7:15AM PST on Feb 12, 2009

Maybe the rainbow fish would not have had to share so drastically if he had shared all along.

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