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.