Rant about board books: The Rainbow Fish

Monkey is at the stage where he wants every book read to him 10 times in a row. So as I read the same book over and over, I find myself thinking (and free-associating) about its implications.

He received a board book version of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister from a relative. He likes it because it has a finger puppet. The first time I read it, I thought, “OK, I guess this is supposed to be about sharing, although I don’t usually share my body parts.” The second time I read it, I thought, “There must be something lost in this abridged edition. This can’t be how the original book actually goes.” The fiftieth time I read it, I thought, “Wow, this book is messed up. Why am I still reading it to my child?”

It turns out that the original book is indeed messed up for the same reasons as the abridged version and that I’m not the only person to have noticed (as evidenced by reviews on Amazon.com). Yes, the book is about a fish who is ostracized for having shiny rainbow scales, but gains friends when he gives his scales away. It teaches children that:

1) Having friends is more important than anything else and is the only way to be happy.

2) It’s fine if these “friends” are only interested in you because you give them stuff.

3) You must even rip parts off of your body in order to be the same as them.

In summation, being different in ways that attract the jealousy of others is automatically vain and bad and the only way to morally redeem yourself is to engage in self-mutilation. I can’t help but think of the scene in Jane Eyre when the minister decides that Helen Burns’ naturally curly red hair is a sign of her “vanity” and that it must be publicly cut off in order to redeem her soul.

I don’t think I need to explain why this ethos is disturbing to those of us trying to teach our children that diversity is good, that it’s OK to be yourself even when it leads to social rejection, that real friends value you for who you are and don’t expect you to buy their friendship with material goods, etc. Since I doubt Pfister consciously intended to promote these precise ideas, and since many people think highly of the book, there’s evidently a fine and often overlooked line between social values such as sharing and coerced conformity.

Pfister’s story represents a nightmare version of socialism: the individual must destroy herself in the process of conforming, or be ostracized from the community. But is this what socialism is? Does anarchism merely replace external laws with the law of peer pressure, control by the government with control by the mob? Society depends on a social conscience; an anarchist society even more so; what happens when this social conscience become twisted and destructive?

Furthermore, what is the ideal relationship of individual to community? Is the fullest development of the individual inherently at odds with that of the community? Or is this only the case when the community and/or the individual is unhealthy? Granted that being in a community with others limits our ability to do certain things (for instance, defecate wherever we please). But this kind of limitation is helpful to the individual’s development. Ideally, it is in community, in the tension between freedom and commitment to others, that we become ourselves. Pfister’s image of literally ripping pieces off oneself to placate others is a perversion of this ideal.

Anyway, I’ll stop there, but these are the sorts of things I think about while reading board books to my toddler. (Don’t get me started on existential angst in The Monster at the End of this Book.)


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