Why I Never Liked The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

Why I Hate The Rainbow Fish

Marcus Pfister’s The Rainbow Fish is a picture book classic, read to children every year by excited parents, grandparents, and teachers. Telling the story of a fish who has a bunch of beautiful rainbow scales that the other, plainer fish envy until Rainbow Fish decides to give away all of his glittering scales except one, the story is presented as a lesson on sharing. And, bonus, the illustrations are beautiful, with actual shiny metallic scales on every page.

I have always hated this book.

The Rainbow Fish ranks high with The Giving Tree on my list of books that well-meaning adults think demonstrate good morals and teach children to help and share with others. But the actual text of The Rainbow Fish never came across as a feel-good story to me, but rather as a disturbing tale where a fish is bullied into literally pulling off pieces of his body to “share” with other who are jealous of him.

Rainbow Fish is, of course, not without his own faults. He starts the story vain of his own unique glittering scales; he seems to think himself a bit better than the other less beautiful fish and spend a lot of time hoping other fish will admire him. It’s easy to see why other fish, even if initially drawn by his beauty, might not find it fun to hang out with him. Once the other fish start badgering him to ask him to give them some of his rainbow scales, however, they are the ones who are in the wrong.

One could argue that the book is just a metaphor, and readers needn’t be disturbed by the fact that fish are literally asking for pieces of the Rainbow Fish’s body — and that Rainbow Fish ultimately gives in to their demands. This is clearly weird and rude and invasive, and if someone started asking me to give them locks of my hair because they thought it was just so lovely and they wanted some of it to make a wig so they could look lovely, too, I would be rightfully creeped out and maybe look into getting a restraining order out of fear this person would jump me with a pair of scissors.

However, if one replaces the rainbow scales with something more innocuous, like chocolate chip cookies, I don’t think the book is teaching a good lesson. The fact that someone has something I don’t have, or has more of something I do have, may mean they are in a position of privilege — but it doesn’t mean I have a right to ask to them to share. If someone comes to my workplace with a giant bag of bagels, it’s a bit rude of me to walk up to them and demand a bagel (if we don’t have the kind of close relationship where this would be reasonable request). It’s even worse for me to ask for a bagel, be told no, and then proceed to ask that person for a bagel every single day in the hopes they will change their mind. Oh, and also ostracize them because they won’t give me the bagel I keep asking for.

But this is the lesson the book teaches: That the other fish have the right to be angry that Rainbow Fish has pretty scales they don’t. That they have the right to ask him every day to give them his scales. That Rainbow Fish does the right thing when he does rip his own scales off his body to give them away. Sharing is one thing, but boundary stomping and demanding people give you their stuff simply because you want it is another! (Especially because rainbow scales aren’t a necessary like food or shelter.)

I know some critics have accused this book about being about socialism, but that’s not my concern. I think it’s a greater problem to read this book as a “lesson” for children when it celebrates the idea that you can demand people give you their stuff and you have the right to harass them in perpetuity until they don’t. Also, if people ask you to give them things you own, up to parts of your own body, the nice thing to do is comply! Yes, Rainbow Fish was a jerk, and he learns by the end of the book that beauty isn’t everything and being kind is more important, but the way he learns this is completely wrong, and I would be happy to never see this book again, even more so to never see it read in a classroom.


18 thoughts on “Why I Never Liked The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Even as a kid I thought it was weird! Some other fish just swim up to Rainbow Fish every day and demand that he give them his stuff! And the lesson isn’t that you shouldn’t demand other people’s stuff; it’s that they should give it to you! But it’s such a popular book. I think we read it several times in school, and I always see people bringing it as a gift to baby showers and stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Krysta says:

    I don’t like this book, either. Teachers usually seem to present it as a story about sharing, but there are better books out there that show why sharing is good. This one just makes it look like, if you want to be friends with the people who are picking on you, you should give them your stuff!

    And, yes, it’s made weirder by having Rainbow Fish need to give away actual parts of his body in order to be accepted by the group. He could have been shown to have more toys than the other fish, or something like that. But somehow the book makes it seem like he’s wrong to have been born with shiny scales and he needs to rip them off to make the other fish feel better about their looks? What about a story where all the fish learn to love themselves and the way they look, without needing to look all the same or exactly like Rainbow Fish?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, how are the other fish not bullies? The little fish goes up to Rainbow Fish every day and demands one of his shiny scales like he’s the bully in a TV show demanding some kid’s daily milk money! And when Rainbow Fish says no, all the other fish shun him. Like bullies!

      Yes, there’s probably some unintentional messaging about body image here, too. Like, if someone thought my hair is cool, should I cut it off to give to them for a wig because they’re jealous of my hair???

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        I think sometimes people believe others “deserve” to be yelled at or bullied, and the Rainbow Fish book is a prime example. Rainbow Fish has something cool everyone else wants and that’s not fair . Thus, the book indicates that it’s acceptable and even laudable for the other fish to bully him to make him give up what he has so they have it, too (especially if he’s vain and therefore apparently no longer deserving of sympathy or respectful treatment). If readers identify with the other fish, they’re more likely to see their demands as merely necessary tactics in the effort to get Rainbow Fish to do what they want him to do, and not as bullying.


          • Krysta says:

            Well, I do think some thought went into the story to make it seem more “okay” for the fish to bully Rainbow Fish. For instance, it’s the “little fish” who repeatedly asks for the scales, not a whale or a shark. The optics would be quite different if a larger or a scarier animal were doing the bullying. But if it’s “just” a little fish…then it must not be bullying, right?

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Lisa @ Bookshelf Fantasies says:

    Agree completely! I read this with my kids, who loved the sparkly pages — but I found it disturbing that the way to achieve peace and friendship was to literally give pieces of oneself away. And yes, I have that issue with The Giving Tree. The tree is generous, but the boy is selfish AF. Neither is a great message for kids!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jess @ beyondthefrontcover says:

    I hadn’t looked past the pictures, but now I’ve read your post I’m viewing this book in a completely different light! I remember the book from my childhood but not whether I liked it or not. I can safely say that I don’t like it now!


  4. Magdalena says:

    Why not have this exact discussion with the class after reading it, rather than simply decide it’s about sharing? Analyze perspectives, feelings, privilege, etc.


    • Krysta says:

      Well, in my experience teachers are usually reading this to preschool classes or kindergarten classes. So while they may ask a few questions to the kids, most of the teachers don’t seem invested in having some in-depth talk with differing views (maybe because they’re not used to doing that with five-year-olds, anyway, but see it as a higher-level kind of thinking for older students). Most are reading it to the class because they want to instill a good lesson. And that lesson is sharing. Obviously, I can’t speak for all teachers. But I know a good many and that’s my personal experience with how the book is often presented to children.


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