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Does Rainbow Fish Promote Socialism? Materialism? Uniformity? Or Sharing?

I love everything weird and colorful in this world and I try to live a life that will make the world a little better once I'm gone.


What Exactly Is the Moral in The Rainbow Fish?

Is this REALLY what we want to teach the children?

I have seen this award winning book out and about for many years, and I admit it is beautifully done. The illustrations are beautiful, and the use of the sparkly foil is very smart. It is mesmerizing to children. It was so popular, I thought it was great book....until I read it.

Written and illustrated by Marcus Pfister Herbert, this book was published in 1992, but it was only recently that I actually opened this book up and read the story. It has been sitting on my own shelf for a few years, but I only now cracked it open and read it to a child. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of reading it for the first time with a four year old girl on my lap - or else I never would have read it to her. (Note to self: read books to yourself before you read them to children).

Halfway through this story, I have a perplexed look of "you can't be serious", and by the end I was wishing that I had just paraphrased an episode of "I Love Lucy" to her again- that always works.

Rainbow Fish

The Story of Rainbow Fish

To me, the octopus should have taught Rainbow Fish not to be full of himself and to be humble, but he went the other way.

If you are unfamiliar with the story, I suggest watching the video below. However, I prefer this alternate version of the story: The AMERICAN Rainbow Fish

Rainbow Fish read by Ernest Borgnine


Children, don't be different.

The Rainbow Fish was the most beautiful in all the ocean. He had something they didn't have. He was different.

The Rainbow Fish is told that in order to be happy, he must give his beautiful scales away to everyone. Get rid of them, making them all the same. This books seems to suggest that one cannot be different, cannot be better and still have friends.

Don't be different, don't be prettier, don't be smarter, don't be richer, don't excel, or else others will be jealous of you and not like you anymore. Is this was we want to teach our children? How will a lesson like this encourage our children from being the very best they can in life? How will it encourage them to excel and get the most out of their talents?

Rainbow fish is not just letting them play with his toys. He is giving them a part of himself, part of what God gave him, part of what makes him unique. Why aren't we celebrating his individuality? Why didn't octopus tell him, "Yes, Rainbow Fish, God made you beautiful, but in order to have friends, you must also be kind"?

Would we ask a zebra in a field of horses to give up one stripe to each of them? Or would we teach the horses that even though the zebra is different, he is is still a nice friendly guy who likes to run and play like the rest of them, and teach the zebra that stripes are beautiful, but not better?

Consider this: What will Rainbow Fish's mother say when he gets home?

What's the The Moral of the Story

What We're Taught in Rainbow Fish

Good kids stories have a moral to the story - just ask Aesop, or Hans Christian Anderson. So what is the moral of this story?

To me this story goes far beyond the "sharing" moral which I think most parents who like this book will rationalize. It goes far beyond "being a good friend". The socialist undertones of this book are screaming at you.

The morals that could have been accented in this story but were missed (or broken):

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What could have been taught

  • Be the best that you can, but be gracious and humble.
  • Everyone is different, and that's okay.
  • Everyone is beautiful, in their own way.
  • Don't be jealous of what others have.
  • Individuality is something to be cherished.
  • Be proud of who you are.
  • You can't buy friends.
  • It's not what you say, but how you say it.
  • God gave everyone different talents (or traits), it is what you do when them that is important.
  • If you've been mean or rude, apologize.

Instead we were taught:

  • Don't do or have anything more then your friends or they will be jealous.
  • To be happy, everyone should be the same.
  • You can buy friends.
  • Sometimes to have friends, you must give up what makes you special.
  • Ostracizing people for being different is okay.
  • You can't feel at home with people who are different than you.

Rainbow Fish was so beautiful, he was rich with silvery scales, and then he was informed that he should give them out equally to the other fish. Just give them away. Sounds a bit like our old friend "redistribution of wealth", doesn't it?

Why should Rainbow Fish have to give up his beauty to have friends? What did those other fish do for the scales? Can't a fish be more rich with scales then other fish and still be their friend? Was there no better way to teach Rainbow Fish about getting along then making him give his scales to them?

I can hear some people saying "it's just sharing!", but It's not just sharing. When we encourage our kids to "share", we expect it to be a back and forth. You let him have some of your cookies, later he'll let you play with his toys. It's not an official system of barter, but it is a friendly "what's mine is yours" attitude. We teach them this sharing as an opposite of greediness, and a way of "getting along", but we expect ALL the kids to share, not just the rich ones. What are the other fish sharing? He doesn't let them play with his scales, or try them on, or borrow them. He is told to give them up. In this story, Rainbow Fish is not sharing with them, he is paying them.

Since the beautiful scales are given to friends, seemingly in exchange for their friendship, this story implies that we live in such a materialistic world that to have friends you must buy them. Do we want to teach our kids that you have to give things to others to get them to be friends with you? What will their parents say when they come home with one beautiful scale and upon being asked are told "Rainbow fish gave this to me, so I'm his friend now".

This doesn't seem like the healthy social skills we were expecting from good kids book, does it?

If I was the parent of ANY of the fish in this story, I would be dismayed at the course of the day, and do what I could to reverse it.

Are You Happy With What This Story Teaches?

The Best Thing I've Read About Rainbow Fish

The very best review of this book I could find is in a comment on Nicole's Wonderful Books for Kids Blog where Dagny Taggart writes:

So many of my friends love this book. So many of my *thinking* friends despise it.

This book is not about sharing. It is about giving up *one's self* to anyone who asks for it for any reason whatsoever. In the end, the rainbow fish loses all of the beauty and uniqueness that made him different and special. He becomes one of the masses.

The next time you read this story to your little one, think about what makes *your* child special and unique. Then think how sad you would be if he or she went to school and lost that special gift because his or her peers found it to be uncool. How sad you would be.

Teach your child to celebrate their uniqueness. Encourage them to shimmer!

There are better ways to teach your children about sharing without having to debase and degrade what makes them special and unique.

Does Rainbow Fish Promote Socialism? Materialism? Uniformity? or Just Generosity?

Do you think Rainbow Fish teaches children the right thing?


Tami norton on October 12, 2020:

I, too, read the book to a group of children before reading it to myself. And I felt the same as you did. Furthermore, I find it interesting that shiny scales are what they use on lures to CATCH FISH. This can't be a good feature to process as a little fish in the ocean.

hbhbmk on September 10, 2019:

Your points are valid. The Giving Tree is another popular kids book that has some of the same flaws - the tree gives away so much that he eventually has nothing (or at least, that's the message I took away from a very LONG time ago when I read it). Books, like life, aren't always perfect and don't always teach the lessons we'd like our kids to learn. So you do the best you can and either read the book and discuss it like you've done here... or pass that book along to the local library sale and find something with a better moral. :-)

Latecomer on July 26, 2019:

Six years later still don’t like this book. It teaches kid to be more selfish, not less. Lovely book visually. All that glitters is not gold however.

Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on February 03, 2013:

I have taken a second look at this book. Normally, a child's book (at least one would like) is supposed to teach a child about what is right. But this book could send mix messages.

anonymous on October 23, 2012:

@anonymous: the point is they weren't friends until he shared; and not even shared some... shared ALL his scales until he had one left just like everyone else. it's about programming a child's mind from early on to think that way. AKA socialism dumbed down to a kindergardener's level to start thinking that way.

Normyo Yonormyo on August 13, 2012:

So you can have an opinion on this book, but as you are the one that reads it to your child you also are the one who can help your child understand what is wrong with the story.

So the book tells that it is not nice to think that you are better than others because you have something special. Of course it is strange to give everything that makes you special away. But maybe that is exactly what you can talk about with your child.

And true it is not good to pay others, even if you behaved badly. Because it should not be possible to buy yourself out of your crimes.

In the end I agree with you that the book should be more clear about what it wants to teach. But you also can ask your child what she or he takes away from the story. Because maybe your child sees communism and maybe it sees punishment for behaving badly and maybe it even sees something completely different from what you expect.

anonymous on June 16, 2012:

I find this American obsession with the 'socialist' boogeyman hilarious. You're even seeing it in a kid's book about the importance of sharing with, and respecting the feelings of, your personal friends? This is not remotely a political book. I suppose you all want your kids to grow up to be arrogant and greedy self-centered showoffs, do you?

anonymous on June 16, 2012:

@anonymous: You're right, people are forcing their political views onto a children's book that's about children's relationships with their personal friends, not politics.

anonymous on June 01, 2012:

you are missing the intire point, rainbow fish was a jerk because he thot he was better then everyone else, so he gave up what his scales to show that he is sorry and that he isn't better then every other fish... its not a socilist plot, its tells kids that if you have more then some one, don't hold it over them like a carrot to a horse. share what you can to be a good friend

Sandy Mertens from Frozen Tundra on April 26, 2011:

Great points brought up here and interesting book.

Ayngel Overson from Crestone, Co on July 29, 2010:

@LisaDH: lol about the giving tree... it was one of my favorite kids books, and still is though "Love you Forever" tops it. For a long time I based my adult definition of love on the Giving Tree and? Now I'm a victims advocate... Hmmms?

LisaDH on July 25, 2010:

Your points are valid. The Giving Tree is another popular kids book that has some of the same flaws - the tree gives away so much that he eventually has nothing (or at least, that's the message I took away from a very LONG time ago when I read it). Books, like life, aren't always perfect and don't always teach the lessons we'd like our kids to learn. So you do the best you can and either read the book and discuss it like you've done here... or pass that book along to the local library sale and find something with a better moral. :-)

K Bechand from NY on July 13, 2010:

I agree with you - I have never really liked the full concept that it showed, but I did read it to my kids - - - Oh, I think the rainbow fish should have consulted a "giant squid" instead of an octopus - :O)

Ruth Coffee from Zionsville, Indiana on July 12, 2010:

You know I can see your point, kids need to be able to learn that it's good to excell and that's what will get them ahead etc. It's good to be an individual. On the other hand it seems like we're seeing the boogie man where he isn't hiding. It's kind of like an old, old episode of Family Ties where staunch conservative Alex freaks out when the preschool is encouraging his younger brother to share. Alex makes him a huge sign to take to school saying "What's mine is Mine!" I would agree that there are two sides to all such things, and it can be taken too far.

puzzlerpaige on July 12, 2010:

Like you I've seen this book for years and have never read it. Although I have spent countless hours skimming MILES of bookshelves to find books that were worth reading to my daughter in the children's section. So so so many of them are really quite horrible. Some blatently, others are sneakily indoctrinating like Rainbow Fish. The good books are few and far between and when I find one that is TRULY good, I usually contact the author to say Thank You. And usually when they are TRULY good, there is not an award in site on the cover. Thanks for the heads up on this book.

Rachel Field on July 11, 2010:

Awesome lens and something very important to think about. It would have been great if the octopus got all the fish together and told each one of them something about themselves that was individual and special - something that they could have been proud of.

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