Tuesday, March 18, 2008

How wise is the Wise Old Octopus? You figure it out.

Let's talk Rainbow Fish.

This 1992 children's book by Marcus Pfister has spawned the usual family of successful-kid-book accessories, such as Rainbow Fish counting books, book of opposites, hand puppets, and, of course, sequels with exclamation points (such as Rainbow Fish to the Rescue!). There are posters and cards and floor puzzles, television shows (HBO Family) and a Halloween costume (at least in Australia). It even has its own Wikipedia entry, which is something like achieving Interweb immortality. And it has also triggered a whole bunch of controversy.

Here's the, um, plot: In the ocean swims a fish with lots of colorful scales (hence the name) including some very shiny ones, and those around him call him Rainbow Fish (RF). One day, a little, plain fish approaches RF and asks him for one of his shiny scales. RF refuses rather starkly ("Get away from me!"). The little fish, dejected, tells all the other plain fish about RF's scorn, and they collectively shun him. Confused as to why he's been ostracized, he asks a starfish who (presumably because star fish really aren't all that bright) sends him to the Wise Old Octopus. The WOO informs him in true Delphic fashion: "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." Okay, so a little confused but primed for personal growth, RF returns to his home waters and passes out his shiny scales until everyone, including himself, has only one. Happy, he now plays with all his (new) friends.

Perhaps the quickest way to become pulled by the extreme opinions on this book is to scroll down its Amazon page to the customer comments. They roughly go from:
1.0 out of 5 stars Celebration of Appeasement and Mediocrity, May 18, 2004
We own this book only because my wife ordered it from a book club. Had we looked at the book, we never would have bought it. My two-year old has not seen it, nor will he. He has enough good books. And this book is bad. The book is so bad, destructive, immoral, and wrong that I have trouble figuring out where to start. Well, let's start with the "moral(s)" of the book, which can be summed up as follows: (1) being special is evil, and worthy of hatred; (2) if you do not give your possessions away to others on their demand and pursuant to their coercion, you will be rightfully hated; (3) you will be happy only if you are mediocre; (4) you need to bribe people to be your friends. And the message here is not about sharing. Notice, the Rainbow Fish does not "share" his scales (sharing would imply that his friends were going to give the scales back when they are done.) No, the Rainbow Fish is compelled (by emotional coercion) to give away that which makes him special. What part of this story is supposed to be edifying? It is garbage.
5.0 out of 5 stars Rainbow Coalition, December 22, 2004
This well-known book is a winner for the toddler set. The Rainbow Fish has brightly colored scales, and some of them shine like silver. In a design coup, the book shows the fish decorated with tiny metallic paper scales. The "oooooo" factor is high. Not only is the rainbow fish an attention getter, but author/illustrator Pfister's ocean backgrounds show an imaginative color range.

Fish's problem is whether beauty or friendship is more important. When the proud fish haughtily, angrily refuses a small blue fish's request for one of his scales, Rainbow gets a bad "rep," and the other fish ignore him. Rainbow Fish advances one level of maturity when he realizes the consequences: "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" He reaches a somewhat more advanced level when a huge octopus, eyes gleaming in a purple-shadowed cave 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 it happened: "the more he gave away, the more delighted he became."

I agree that Rainbow Fish's motivation isn't very altruistic, and that he also could have pointed out the non-shimmery qualities of the other fish. But this is a book for small toddlers, not a platform for budding Rand followers. Slightly older kids could be led into a discussion of defending Fish's solution or proposing alternatives, and the visual highlights might inspire some painting or drawing. Pfister first published the award-winning book in Switzerland ("Der Regenbogenfisch"); the translation is by J. Alison James.
I've even run across someone describing the story as inspiring socialism in the young. Goodness.

Myself, I don't quite see the socialism worry, but neither do I buy that to be concerned about the message of Rainbow Fish is to endorse an Ayn Rand, Strongest Should Crush All, approach to the playground. (Kids will largely adopt that approach on their own, it seems.) And, to be honest, RF is a little rough on the youngster who asks him for a shiny scale, and he does seem a bit uppity early on. It's also hard to deny that the book itself is inviting: the font is sleek, modernist cool, and the illustrations are gorgeous — the way the glittering scales in the story gleam on the page sure makes everyone in our house want to touch them. (And we do touch them. Lots.) The real picture, in other words, is fairly complicated.

But here's my problem with the book: Ostensibly the message is about the emptiness of vanity and the benefits of sharing and friendship. Okay, fair enough, but, first, the scale metaphor doesn't translate neatly. RF may be vain and proud and all that, but instead of the fish equivalents of wealth, he distributes bits of himself. What's the equivalent in the kid case? Hard to say, really.

More importantly, though, I do worry about the import of RF's looking for and finding happiness in the eyes of others, particularly when it comes to Q. It's well documented by now that girls (and even women) tend to ascribe their successes to external causes (luck, e.g.) and their failures to internal ones (mainly personal flaws), whereas boys tend to do the reverse. RF's lesson is poorly loaded, then, because it locates the cause of happiness outside oneself, even suggesting self-effacement as a proper route to it. That bugs me. RF doesn't have to parade around all fancy, but there's an ocean of difference (pardon the expression) between conceit and pride. He is what he is, and others — as well as he himself — should grab hold of that fact at some point. "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" Something for him to admire and to be proud of.

(That's not to say that everyone is automatically equally special; I don't buy that either, and it's another persistent kid-lit bromide worth talking about some other time.)

We're not giving up the book, though. As I mentioned above, it's beautifully done, and my lovely wife and I light up all desires to read. Keeping it in the rotation likewise allows for a different sort of lesson, a deeper one. As a parent, my instincts push me to protect Q and The Boy from certain truths as well as sharp objects. Ideas can't be kid-proofed pretty much at all, though, so I've come to think that it's better to think out loud with them about how to detect truths on their own, how not to swallow whole the beliefs and opinions of others ("hook, line, and sinker," as they say). So we ask them what they think their books mean, how they would act if they were on the page instead and why. So to twist the cliché a bit: Give a person a Rainbow Fish and she reads for a day; teach a person how to read Rainbow Fish, and she (or he) becomes a fisher of truths.

We ask Q whether she would give her glittering scales away like RF. And, without prompting from either of us, she asserts, "No." That's enough for now. Later she can discover, for herself, why she's right.

1 comment:

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