Rainbow Fish, the admittedly popular and award-winning and still ubiquitous 1992 children’s book by Swiss author Marcus Pfister, has spawned the usual school of successful-kid-book accessories, such as Rainbow Fish counting books, board books of opposites, hand puppets, and, of course, sequels with exclamation points (Rainbow Fish to the Rescue!, e.g.). There are posters and cards and floor puzzles also available for purchase, television shows (HBO Family), and even clever instructions on how to make yourself into Rainbow Fish. And it has also triggered a whole bunch of controversy.
Here’s the, um, plot: In the ocean swims a fish arrayed with colorful scales, including some very shiny ones, called Rainbow Fish (RF). One day, a young/little plainly scaled fish approaches RF and asks him for one of his shiny scales. RF responds, “Get away from me!” The dejected little fish tells all the other drab fish about RF’s scorn, and they collectively shun him. Confused about his ostracism, RF asks a starfish who (presumably because starfish really aren’t that bright) sends him to the Wise Old Octopus. The WOO counsels him in true Delphic fashion:
“Give a glittering scale to each of the other fish. You will no longer be the most beautiful fish in the sea, but you will discover how to be happy.”
Okay, so confused but primed for personal growth, RF returns to his home waters and passes out his shiny scales until everyone, including himself, has only one. Happy and fulfilled and well-liked as a result of his selfless giving, he now frolics with all his new friends. THE END.
To get an idea of how this little book has engendered some big opinions, just enter the roiling waters of its Amazon customer comments section. The “Most Helpful” reviews range from:
Celebration of appeasement and mediocrity? A book that is “bad, destructive, immoral, and wrong”? And it doesn’t take long, either on Amazon or the web more generally, to run into worries that the story inspires socialism in our innocent young.
Myself, I don’t quite see how socialism figures in at all (or why it matters that Pfister first published his book in Switzerland). And I don’t buy the idea that to be concerned about the message of Rainbow Fish is to promote an Ayn Rand, Self-Happiness at the Expense of All Else, moral compass. (Besides, many kids tend to begin their moral lives following some flavor of Playground Randianism.) The book itself is definitely inviting in its execution, with its Swiss-sleek, modernist font and uniformly gorgeous illustrations—the way the effulgent scales sparkle on the page sure made everyone in our house want to run our fingers along them, which we did. Lots. More kids books should be like that.
Why not then fry bigger fish? I do have a couple of big problems with Rainbow Fish, and here they are: First, the story is a muddle. For example, though RF reacts a little too harshly to the fish who asks for one of his best scales, the youngster’s request is arguably inappropriate and definitely unmotivated. Ostensibly the book teaches the emptiness of vanity and the benefits of sharing and friendship. Okay, sure, this is fairly common kid-book fare, but if you think even a little bit about it, the scale metaphor, the story’s core, just doesn’t work. RF (re)joins the community of fish through sharing, but instead of the fish equivalents of wealth, he distributes bits of himself. What’s the equivalent in the kid case? Skin? Hard to say, really. The literal story turns out to be a lousy vector for the lesson.
More importantly, though, I’m troubled by RF’s looking for and finding happiness in the eyes of others, particularly when it comes to my daughter, Q. Piles of evidence strongly indicate that high-achieving girls and women tend to ascribe their successes to external causes (luck, e.g.) and their failures to internal ones (personal flaws and lacks), whereas boys more often tend to do the reverse. Rainbow Fish locates the source of happiness outside oneself, even suggesting literal self-effacement as a proper route to acceptance. That bugs me. RF doesn’t have to parade around all fancy like, but there’s an ocean of difference between conceit and pride. He is what he is, and others — as well as he himself — should come to grips with that fact. “What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?” the book asks. Something for him to admire and be proud of, that’s what.
By the way, this all not to say that everyone is automatically special or beautiful or has glimmering scales of one kind or another. I find this persistent kid-lit bromide equally if not more pernicious and groan-worthy, but I’ll leave its filleting for another time.
Still, we didn’t give up the book. As I mentioned, it’s beautifully done, and my wife and I indulge all desires to read. When our kids were very young, we let it stay in heavy rotation in an attempt to teach a different sort of lesson, a deeper and more slippery one. My parental instincts (such as they are) push me to protect my kids from sharp edges of all kinds, including those of some stories and the ideas they deliver. But I can’t rubberize everything that cuts, and ideas about how one should best live, whether socialistic or Hard-Core Randian or otherwise, can’t be kid-proofed pretty much at all. I’ve come to believe that it’s better to think out loud with them about how not to swallow the beliefs and opinions of others hook, line, and sinker, and, as they become more sophisticated thinkers, how to appreciate a story’s success or failure without being subject to it. We don’t read along with them as much now that they keep thicker books by their beds, but we still ask them what they think their stories mean, and how they would act if they were in the page instead, and why. To twist the cliché a bit: Give a person Rainbow Fish and she reads for a day; teach a person how to read Rainbow Fish, and she becomes a life-long fisher of truths. Or something like that.
I think this approach works—or at least it will. We asked our kids whether they would give their glittering scales away if they were RF. Without prompting from either of us, they both asserted, “No.” Though I prefer that answer myself, they should be able to discover for themselves why they believe they’re right (which they are), why that lesson isn’t right for them. Why they should just gleam and glow.