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

Updated on June 11, 2017

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

Rainbow Fish Big Book
Rainbow Fish Big Book

The Story of Rainbow Fish:

Rainbow fish was the prettiest in the ocean with beautiful shiny scales. Other fish asked if he wanted to play, he just kept swimming. One fish asked if he could have a scale and the Rainbow Fish was a little rude in saying no "who do you think you are?". Then none of the fish would talk to Rainbow Fish. Then the wise creepy octopus told Rainbow Fish he had to give his scales to the other fish to learn how to be happy. Rainbow fish gave a scale to each of the other fish until he had just one left and looked like all the rest. Then they agreed to be friends with him again.


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):

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?

Are you satisfied with the lessons conveyed in Rainbow Fish?

See results

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?

Yes, I like the story just as it is.

Yes, I like the story just as it is.

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    • anonymous 4 years ago

      Oh, my goodness. This is ridiculous. You can twist anything if you want to bad enough. I think this is yet another example of someone wanting to make a mountain out of a molehill. And actually it isn't even a molehill. It's a sweet, simple story of a fish that is too full of himself learning to share with others. End of story.

    • anonymous 5 years ago

      Yes. To say anything that promotes sharing is promoting socialism is typical of the ridiculous black-and-white arguments coming from the Ayn Rand fanboy set who like to make out that there's either pure self-interested greed or communism, no middle ground.

    • ChrissLJ 5 years ago

      It teaches children to share and not be greedy.

    • Sandy Mertens 6 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Interesting story. I do think it helps in teaching children the right thing.

    • FlynntheCat1 7 years ago

      While I can see the 'you need to be like everyone else' message (now!) and don't like it, I always saw it as teching people to share - the special scales are what the other fish wanted, not that they didn't want him to be different.

      Also, it is a very pretty book.

      Materialism would have been him valuing the scales over the other fishes' friendship. Also, not being American, i don't see the concept of socialism as evil.


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      • yankee capitalist 2 years ago

        I asked my kids what they got from this story. They recognized that the rainbow fish was unique

        ( rich)and had possesions that the other fish ( poor people) wanted. The octopus ( the government) coerced the rich guy, to " give away" his wealth

        ( taxes, fines, levies, etc) to the poor people, then everybody was happy because they were equal....but not really. My kids wondered why the blue fish didn't PAY the rainbow fish for a colorful scale or offer something in TRADE for what they desired? But that didn't happen because this story was teaching what adults in a free market economy can clearly recognize is socialism. People from socialist countries are blind to it by the comments they post.

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        Of course, it doesn't teach socialism, it teaches (Communism) there is a difference, but Socialism eventually leads to Communism. In the Communist Manifesto it teaches the whole idea of Communism is the to idea of doing way with differences or classes. It also teaches that in order to get along with the rest of society one has to be equal in order to live together in society. The Manifesto points out that anyone who has (obtained more) than the next person is the person who is bad or wrong, to simplify it. The manifesto points out the need-fullness for no one to stand out and if you are in a better estate then the next then it is mandatory for you to distribute to the rest in order for their estate to be equal with yours and if you don't to target the one who is in a better estate until there is a break down in that person submitting to the communal standard.

        The Rainbow Fish was talked about, ostracized and condemned for not giving away his colors to those who did not have. The Octopus gave advise that stated (If you give away your colors to those who ask for them) then everyone will like you better. That is not the principles of sharing. It teaches that when someone is in a better estate then the next, that bullying is justified towards those who have more than you. And if they do not give you what you desire in which they themselves have, then bullying is right. Those are not the principles of sharing-sharing is neither based on giving because you are persuaded to through aggression. It does not teach the true principles of friendship, because a friend will not bully another friend into obtaining what is desired.

        Let's take this same principle a step further: If there is a very pretty high school girl, many of the girls are sexually promiscuous, the pretty girl is not and all the girls know it and the boys know it as well, they pressure her into giving up her virginity instead of valuing-holding it and giving it only to that man she marries. They continue to mock her and not befriend her because she won't put out. According to the principle of this book it teaches in order for that girl to get friends, she has to give her body over to the rest that wants it. Is that the sharing many of you fools are talking about? Because that is the principle this book teaches. That is not sharing. Teaching a child to share comes from the individuals choice to share, not a forced coercion for the sake of a community to like them. This is Communism period.

      • Sandy Mertens 4 years ago from Frozen Tundra

        I came back to watch the video. I have a change of mind. Although it is teaching that sharing makes one happy and being generous can bring friends. The other side to this is that the rainbow fish, being a diva (so to speak) at the beginning, is paying the other fish off to like him. So there is a generosity, but there is also materialism. I suppose socialism in a more light sense that the rainbow fish owns the other fish and they can't be individuals.

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        The other fish should be happy with who they are. So what rainbow fish is shinier! Shinier doesn't mean happier. And if you're sharing to gain friends, you're sharing for the wrong reason, and you're getting the wrong friends.

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        Wow...when I re-read the synopsis of the book the first thing that came to my mind was redistribution of wealth. Metaphorically the Rainbow Fish represents someone of great wealth, but all the other "commoners" don't like him because he has so much money (the scales in the story) and doesn't want to share them. But alas the story ends with Rainbow Fish giving away his scales, that the other fish were jealous of, and became happy...

      • anonymous 5 years ago

        In this chilling tale, a young shiny fish must give up what makes him unique and become like everyone else, so that others will like him. Hmm... sounds a bit like re-redistribution of wealth doesnât it? Re-read it and replace the words rainbow and scale to dollars. Scary right?

      • seegreen 6 years ago

        I think that socialism is a huge stretch. But I have never cared for the book because the message I get is that it is about a fish that buys friends. Be my friend and I'll give you something. My kids disagree with me.

      • bechand 7 years ago

        You make a great point with this book - I have always thought it wasnt fair that the fish had to give away it's unique persona to make friends. It promotes changing yourself to fit in with everyone else ... and Now reading what you wrote, I can see the socialism concept too ... (although it does have pretty pics :O)


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        • SandyMertens profile image

          Sandy Mertens 4 years ago from Frozen Tundra

          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.

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          @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 profile image

          Normyo Yonormyo 5 years ago

          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.

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          anonymous 5 years ago

          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?

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          anonymous 5 years ago

          @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.

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          anonymous 5 years ago

          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

        • SandyMertens profile image

          Sandy Mertens 6 years ago from Frozen Tundra

          Great points brought up here and interesting book.

        • LisaDH profile image

          LisaDH 7 years ago

          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. :-)

        • bechand profile image

          bechand 7 years ago

          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)

        • RuthCoffee profile image

          RuthCoffee 7 years ago

          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 profile image

          puzzlerpaige 7 years ago

          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 profile image

          Rachel Field 7 years ago

          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.