There is a popular children’s book called The Rainbow Fish. It is actually a German story that has been translated into English. The book’s popularity likely comes from its beautiful art as much as from its message about sharing. The art is indeed eye catching and vibrant. Given its popularity and the beauty of its illustrations, I was quite surprised when my husband snorted in judgment and declared it a terrible story after reading it to our oldest daughter when she was two. Why would Rick, a usually generous guy who is rarely tempted to censorship, have such a strong reaction to this story, a standard in the current pre-school canon?
To summarize the story, there was a special fish who was the “most beautiful fish in the entire ocean. His scales were every shade of blue and green and purple, with sparkling silver scales among them.” He was very lonely, though, because when the other fish invited him to play “he would just glide past, proud and silent, letting his scales shimmer.” Once another fish asked if he could have just one of the rainbow fish’s shiny scales, and the rainbow fish scoffed haughtily at the very idea. After awhile, though, the rainbow fish grows tired of being alone, and so he consults a “wise octopus.”*
The octopus advises him to “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.” And so he does. “The rainbow fish shared his beautiful scales left and right. And the more he gave away, the more delighted he became.”
Most people who read this story see a simple tale of learning to share and make friends through generosity. My husband and now I, however, see a powerful false dichotomy: you can either be special and unique or you can have friends. You can’t have both. Rick feels particularly unsettled by this sentence that comes after the rainbow fish gives away all but one of his shiny scales, “When the water around him filled with glittering scales, he at last felt at home among the other fish.” This idea reminded him of the communist ideology that was still very common when he lived in the Soviet Union during the last years of its dissolution in the early 1990s. By communist reckoning, in order to have human equality we must have human sameness. We all must have exactly the same things, dress the same way, live in the same apartments, act the same and even be the same. Uniqueness in any way is suspicious, because it reveals your arrogance, that you think more of yourself than you do of others.
Further, I think the story also implies that manipulation is a proper part of friendship. At least part of the message seems to be, “Don’t expect people to be your friends unless you give them those things that you possess that they covet.” Sure, it is hard to know whether we are to interpret the rainbow fish’s special scales more as possessions or as personal attributes. But seeing as they are attached to his very body, I do not think it outlandish to see them as attributes.
So, how would I have written the story differently? Mainly, I would have had the “wise” octopus upend the false dichotomy put forth rather than underscore it further. I would have had her first suggest that the rainbow fish try to make friends by being kind and respectful to the other fish. Give up this “proud and silent” thing, and be friendly instead! Second, I would have had the octopus note that while the rainbow fish may be the only fish with shimmering scales, he is not the only one with beauty. Surely each fish he interacts with has unique attributes and gifts that make them beautiful, too – perhaps one is the fastest swimmer, one has vibrant orange scales, another knows just how to evade predators, etc. So, rather than having the rainbow fish be pressured into giving away his special scales so everyone could be exactly equal, I would have had the octopus try to help the community of fish rise above of their jealousies and instead embrace their unique beauty and gifts. That is, instead of pulling the rainbow fish down to adopt the least imaginative, narrowest understanding of what ‘equal’ is, the octopus could have attempted to pull all the other fish up to a whole new understanding of what equality and joyful freedom in the midst of diversity could be.
One of my most fundamental disagreements with the story of The Rainbow Fish is that it suggests that there is a small and finite amount of beauty and giftedness in the world. And for there to be any equity, the beauty must be parceled out equally until there are only little bits of sparkle here and there. No, in my worldview, the sea is full of beautiful fish, each shimmering and vibrant in a unique way. And part of the fun of life is to learn to truly enjoy others’ shimmering gifts.
Of course, the trick is not only to figure out what your unique gifts are, but also to choose celebration rather than jealousy when others are gifted in ways you are not. Like a treasure hunt, we must learn to notice other people’s gifts and enjoy watching them use them. Where would we be, after all, if Louis Pasteur had not discovered his talents and been encouraged to use them? Or Abraham Lincoln, his? Or Jane Austen, hers? Or, today, Gary Haugen and his remarkable vision and gifts? Where would we be if even Jesse Owens or Michael Jackson had been discouraged from using their unique gifts? We would all be diminished. No, perfect sameness is not the answer; celebrated variety is.
From their toddler years, we have tried to teach our kids that there is fun in both discovering your own talents and in celebrating as others express theirs. There is space in the world for many, many talents and much beauty. Nay, there is more than space, there is grave need. My hope for my kids is that they take joy in their uniqueness and that they put their talents to great use for the good of others. And, equally important, we are hoping they learn to take joy in everyone else’s gifts, too. If you ask my kids right now what their special talents are, one will tell you she is good at drawing, another will tell you that she can run fast, and the last will tell you that she is great at finding and collecting “jewels” (colored, plastic gemstones).
Not sure that my kids have a future using these particular talents to serve humankind, but we’ve got some time. Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with cookie exchanges? Please see my next post, On Rainbow Fish and Cookie Exchanges (part 2).
*All book images in this post are photos I took of The Rainbow Fish, © 1992.
© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.