The Rainbow Fish


Written and Illustrated by Marcus Pfister (English translation by J. Alison James)

NorthSouth Books, 1992

A long way out in the deep blue sea there lived a fish. Not just an ordinary fish, but 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.

The plot in a nutshell: A beautiful fish learns the value of sharing

The rainbow fish is exceedingly proud of his beautiful scales and the way the other fish admire them. One day, a small blue fish asks for just one of his shiny scales and the Rainbow Fish refuses and sends him away. The blue fish tells all the other fish what happened and they begin to keep their distance from the Rainbow Fish. He grows lonely without any company so he goes to the wise octopus for counsel. The octopus advises him to give a shiny scale to every fish. The Rainbow Fish is doubtful, but when the little blue fish approaches him again, the Rainbow Fish gives him one scale, figuring that he won’t miss just one. Grateful, the blue fish tucks the new scale among his own and happily swims away. Soon, all the other fish show up asking for a scale of their own and as the Rainbow Fish shares them, he finds himself happier and more at home with the other fish than he had ever felt. Eventually, he is left with just one shiny scale, but many new friends.

Fish lips are weird.

Fish lips are weird.

Author/illustrator Marcus Pfister first published this book in his native Switzerland and then J. Alison James translated it into English. Opinions are greatly divided on the message of this book, with one group finding it a positive story about sharing and kindness and others seeing it as a dangerous tale rejecting individuality and promoting entitlement. My initial take on the first read pulled ideas from both schools of thought. I’m onboard with the fact that sharing usually makes you feel happy and contented, but the way it was written here didn’t quite work for me, since it did seem as though the other fish felt that the Rainbow Fish owed it to them to share, which made it all seem more like commerce than kindness. And the message, however you interpret it, comes across as a little too heavy handed. I feel it would have greatly improved the story for him to have just given the scales away on his own instead of having the fish ask for them.

The artwork cleverly includes scales that actually do stand out as shiny and sparkly, making it significantly more noticeable at the end when every fish has one. The color palette covers all the aquatic shades of blue and green, making the rainbow fish, with all his distinctive colors, prominent on every page. The book loosely inspired an animated television series, which had virtually nothing to do with the plot and simply created new stories around the main character and a host of new characters.

And what did we learn? What I take away from this book is that, if your heart is in the right place, sharing with others can be a great way to feel better about yourself.


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