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.