Posted by: michelle @ books my kids read | December 30, 2009

the strange lesson of The Rainbow Fish

A while ago I wrote a post about how disturbing it was to read The Giving Tree as an adult. Afterwards, a friend who reads this blog mailed me a clipping from the LA Times about a radio personality turned blogster who did a podcast on rethinking classic children’s books (full podcast here). She not only had issues with The Giving Tree, but also with a variety of other “beloved” classics. One of the stories she mentioned was The Rainbow Fish, which I had seen over and over but which I myself had never read. I saw a copy of it when we were in the library the other day and decided to take a look for myself. This books grabs your attention because there is a beautiful fish on the cover with shiny scales. As a production person, I know what it takes to create the metallic effect and the cost involved. As a parent, I know that kids like shiny things so I can see the attraction. Anyway, as with The Giving Tree, I can see the pros and the cons of this story, but on the whole, it rubs me the wrong way.

The story is of a beautiful fish, “the most beautiful fish in the ocean,” who is called Rainbow Fish by the other fish. They all wanted to play with him, but he “would just glide past, proud and silent, letting his scales shimmer.” One day, one of the smaller fishes calls out to him and wants him to give away one of his silvery scales. Rainbow Fish not only says no, but is somewhat rude about it (which makes some sense, since he’s basically being asked to hand over an arm). The blue fish feels scorned so he goes back to the other fish and bad mouths Rainbow Fish so that he is now ostracized by the other fish. Rainbow fish doesn’t like this. It was okay when he ignored everyone else, but he wants the other fish to pay attention to him – “What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?” He is encouraged to talk to the wise octopus for help. The octopus suggests that he gives a glittering scale to each of the other fish so that he will no longer be the most beautiful fish but will discover how to be happy. He balks at the idea, but winds up doing it anyway. Giving away his beautiful scales makes him feel better and now everyone will play with him.

Okay, so that’s my summary of the story with a touch of editorializing thrown in. I have so many various problems with this story…

  1. The Rainbow Fish is supposed to just give everyone else what makes him special in order to be liked? Aren’t we supposed to teach our children to value themselves as individuals and to take pride in what makes them different?
  2. The blue fish goes off and speaks negatively about Rainbow Fish and that’s seen as perfectly okay. Rather than dealing with the problem himself, namely his greed and accepting that sometimes there are things that can’t or shouldn’t be shared, he teaches the lesson that bullying and getting everyone to gang up on someone is a means to get your way.
  3. After giving away many scales “he at last felt at home among the other fish” – teaching a lesson that we need to all look alike rather than playing on the fact that there are fish of many different colors and some, like rainbow fish, that are a mix of many colors.

As I said, there are pieces of this story that I think are good for kids:

  1. Vanity is bad
  2. Sharing is important

However, the main lessons seem to go against everything we want to be teaching our children about being individuals.

In writing this, I actually read an interesting criticism on Wikipedia about how the book could be promoting socialism and/or communism. I never even thought about those ideas. The crazy thing is that the same wiki page also mentions that “The book is best known for its morals about the value of being an individual.” How in the world did anyone come up with the idea that this book values being an individual? That seems to be the one thing that it fails to show!

I’ll be taking this book back to the library. If the munchkin wants to read it at some point, that’s fine. As with The Giving Tree, there are some good lessons, you just have to find your way through the bad ones. That’s where parents come in.



  1. I love the rainbow fish, one of my favourites.

  2. I hear what you’re saying. This was basically my first response to the book (someone gave it to J as a present). I like what I perceive to be the message–the more you give to others, the more you get in return. This is something that I am trying to do more and more in my own life, and how true it is!

    However, I think one problem with the story and the reason it feels like a rejection of individuality is because the things that the Rainbow Fish gives away (scales) are physical (not love, or kindness, or joy, etc). I guess the physical is easier for children to understand.

    The other huge problem with the story, as you already mention, is how he eventually gets to the giving part… he is guilted/shamed into it.

  3. […] it has not found its way back into our house. Back in the day I was writing a different blog and wrote about it there. My summary at the time with some editorializing, was this:¬†The story is of a beautiful fish, […]

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