Don't Be Like the Rainbow Fish

Like so many of the best socialist products, Marcus Pfister's The Rainbow Fish has been a runaway capitalist success


Like so many of the best socialist products, Marcus Pfister's The Rainbow Fish has been a runaway capitalist success. The children's classic, in which the most brightly colored fish in the ocean finds happiness only after handing over all but one of his glittering scales under duress to the gray grumps around him, has sold since its 1992 debut more than 30 million copies worldwide.

Whereas Rainbow Fish achieves transcendence through literally becoming colorless, the exact opposite was the case for The Rainbow Fish. Using an expensive and novel combination of holographic foil stamping and watercolor, the Swiss-born Pfister and his publisher, NorthSouth Books, produced a striking visual package that proved irresistible.

"The effect of the stamping was so nice that all the bookshops here in Switzerland put it in the windows," Pfister recalled in a 2013 interview with Publisher's Weekly. "We decided that I'd get only 50 percent of my usual royalties for the book, and only that way was it possible to make it work." Looks like a win-win.

Except for some of us parents, that is. Like countless toddler wranglers, I ended up with a copy of The Rainbow Fish around the house—gift, hand-me-down, who knows?—when my firstborn was getting out of diapers, and it took me all of one reading to understand why the former conservative radio host Neal Boortz 12 years ago called it not just "insidious" but "one of the biggest pieces of trash children's books ever published." (Boortz's anti-Rainbow animus became so legendary that it sparked a response publication of sorts, called Starboortz Fish, in which a dull starfish is counseled that in order to truly shine he must earn the honor through industriously using what competitive advantages he already has.)

Libertarians won't last long in this world taking easy umbrage at the statist culture around them. And as the unwilling recipient of more political children's books than my mind has been able to successfully scrub, I can testify that kiddie propaganda in the other direction can be gruesome, too. But Pfister's blockbuster—which was spun off into an animated TV series, plus several sequels—is toxic enough that I took the rare step of expelling it from my home.

Why? Start with the protagonist. He starts as "the most beautiful fish in the entire ocean," but he refuses to talk or play with the other guppies, preferring instead to "glide past, proud and silent, letting his scales shimmer." I mean, we've all known arrogant people, but don't they usually try to leverage their inherited gifts into some kind of (advantageous-to-them) social interaction?

Instead, he whines about not having any friends. A quest ensues to meet the wise and scary octopus, who advises: "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."

This, it turns out, is a counsel to pay ransom—because on previous pages we learned that his fellow fish shun Rainbow not because he won't play with them but because he refused a request from one of them to "give me one of your shiny scales. They are so wonderful, and you have so many." Sure, the colorful fella's a jerk, but he only gets truly ostracized because he won't hand over his body parts on demand, in the name of equality.

After Rainbow Fish dutifully relinquishes a shiny scale to a grateful swimmer, the other fish mob him to insist on their fair share. "His most prized possessions had been given away, yet he was very happy," Pfister concludes after the giveaway. Only then do the other fish invite him back to play.

There is exactly one good moral to be gleaned from these shimmery blue pages: Don't be imperious about your inherited advantages. The rest is the kind of thuggishly naive utopianism that not even John Lennon believed anymore a few months after releasing "Imagine."

But in these times of democratic socialism and ideological abstractions untethered to real-world habits, The Rainbow Fish may have more resonance than ever. It takes genuine artistic and marketing talent, plus the almost magical trade routes made possible by international capitalism (the book has been translated into more than 50 languages), to sell redistribution fantasia to so many millions in exchange for their own hard-earned money. Physical and sociological intimidation was, thankfully, not enough. Kids may as well learn now: Incoherent insincerity can make you rich, if you work hard enough.

(Addendum: Our friends over at Challenger School have their own interpretation of the book, and how that relates to their educational mission. Well worth the read!)

NEXT: Detroit Cop Shoots Family Dog in Front of 9-Year-Old

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  1. “Steal this book”

    1. By Marx & By Engels, you’ve GOT it!! Brilliant!

      Please allow me to SocialistSplain a bit though… The publisher’s house and the distributors, they have the books, and the poor do not. So the publisher’s house and the distributors don’t have any friends, because they are book-greedy and selfish-fishes. We must do them a FAVOR, and “steal” their books, and pass the books around, so that they can have friends again!

      But “steal” is a bad word. We vote (or revolt) their book-rights away, then we “re-allocate” them, we do not “steal” them… (Comrade Bernie has taught me well!)

    2. I don’t understand the complaints about this book. Was the glittering fish coerced by the other fish to give away his scales? If not, what’s the problem? There is nothing unlibertarian about sharing.

      1. Second hander!

      2. Nah, he was pimped out.

  2. Fish are to be taxed of their snazzy scales!?! Can I tax the beautiful Hollywood stars for their good hairs on my bad hair days?

    “Body taxes” are coming!!!

    Today, if I sink my own labor into my house and yard, and thereby increase my assessed tax value of my property, I have to pay more taxes! If I cannot pay my taxes, they take my house! They tax me out of my house, so that a richer person can buy it!

    Very soon now, brain transplants will be a “thing”. If you cannot pay your body taxes, they will tax you out of your body! It’s only fair!!! I sink my labor into my house, house taxes go up. Hollywood star or athlete sinks labor or money into body (working out, cosmetic surgery, etc.), assessed tax value of their asses (AKA Hollywood assessed-asses-values gentrification) should go up! They should live under threat of being taxed out of their bodies, as I live under threat of being taxed out of my house!

    1. First I would say, don’t give them any ideas. Sort of reminiscent of a made for Netflix scifi series, the name escapes me, where people have their personalities/souls whatever makes you a person, on a disk and it can be downloaded into any body. People with a lot of money get nice bodies, poor people get whatever.
      Your concept would make a great distopian scifi story. Unfortunately, for many, scifi stories written as warnings seem to be treated as how to books by the left.

      1. I think it was called Get Out.

      2. That was called Altered Carbon. Very early in the series, the “authorities” put a murdered 7-year-old girl into a 60-something man’s body because “you get what you get”.

  3. Speaking of improving property and raising your own taxes, it’s funny how people will complain of decreased property values when a neighbor lets grass grow too high or plants veggies instead of grass, or has an old non-running car parked out front … how many of those whiners would pay you some part of the extra value they would realize from selling their house when you have raised their property values?

    1. Weird because being in an HOA lowers property values because most people don’t like to be coerced into maintaining their property but will do it voluntarily.

  4. I’m confused — do the other fish point guns at him? Or do they just say “I won’t be your friend unless you pay me”?

    1. You make a good point… From what we read about the book, the deprived fishes make ONLY social threats…

      However, the kids who read this, will rapidly expand it to “I will not be a friend of, or vote for, selfish-fish, fishy politicians who will NOT bless MY right to “access” YOUR scales, wallet, etc.” Then the selected politicians will bless the cops to do the gun-pointing and taking. Once the road to Hell has been paved by the idea of my right to your stuff, the idea of having the political process “sanitize” violence that can’t really EVER be sanitized, follows very quickly.

      1. To me, the book sounds more like Christian allegory than Das Kapital.

        It’s funny that right-wing Christian Republicans don’t run around advising everyone to give all their stuff away. Isn’t that what Jesus said to do?

        1. Oh yeah, ya NAILED that one! We listen to what we want to listen to, and ignore the rest. Peter McWilliams and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business if You Do…”

          Is a damned good book, it says (among lots of other stuff) what you just said, and SOOO much more, along similar lines.

          But Jesus said to give your stuff away, and never said anything (that we know of) about forcing others to give their stuff away, which Peter M. also points out.

          1. But Jesus said to give your stuff away, and never said anything (that we know of) about forcing others to give their stuff away…

            Let’s consider: “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

            IOW, if you die rich you’re going to be tortured for eternity. Is extortion not force?

            1. I think Jesus was operating on the theory (OK, hypothesis) that God and-or the angels or Saint Peter gets to decide who goes to Heaven, and who does not. Jesus didn’t say that you or I (or Government Almighty) gets to say who passes the Pearly Gates. So the hypothetical “extortion” here is by “God”, not man, on the dump-your-riches -to-get-to-Heaven thing.

              Of course, in today’s world, Government Almighty has replaced God Almighty!

              I will now demonstrate, logically and impeccably, that Government Almighty is the boss of God Almighty…
              Here is PROOF!
              We read in the papers, every day almost, of federal judges (servants of Government Almighty) sitting in judgment (using their magical mind-reading powers) about whether or not our religious beliefs are “sincerely held”, or not.
              Yet I have NEVER heard of credible evidence concerning God Almighty, sitting in judgment about whether or not our beliefs in Government Almighty are “sincerely held”, or not!!!
              Brain case closed!!!

  5. The only way to get colorful scales is to take them from someone who already has some.

    Typical zero-sum thinking that explains so much about Proggies.

    1. I know. Those lazy fish should have learned some genetic engineering.

      1. Learn to code, you stupid-lazy fish!!! 🙂

    2. Nailed it!

  6. I can testify that kiddie propaganda in the other direction can be gruesome, too.


    1. Someone never saw The Incredibles.

      1. Or Jesus Camp.

    2. I can’t think of any in the other direction.

      1. Ant and the Grasshopper?

      2. The graphic novel version of Anthem.

      3. The Little Engine that Could?

  7. If you want to find the old fairy tells, old children stories and other books in the public domain.
    Go here

    You can still find the story of the Hen who will not share the bread she cooked with the lazy. And their free too. 🙂
    Also found some really good art books as well.

    1. The old fairy tails were not meant for children, if you can find old texts from the middle ages, they were full of sex and gore, very unsuitable for children by today’s standards. They were later sanitized as children’s stories once it became unfashionable for adults to believe in magic.

      1. And the original unsanitized for children versions also very seldom had happy endings.

  8. Shiny scales can attract your choice of mates but also predators. The school can give you both security from attack and relief from decision making.

    1. “but also predators.”

      Actually, some of the most colorful ocean fish are toxic (see lion fish for example). Far from attracting predators, they are a signal that “it would not be a good idea to eat me”

  9. OT: The other workers’ paradise gets hungry:

    “Cuba begins widespread rationing due to shortages”
    “Havana — The Cuban government announced Friday it is launching widespread rationing of chicken, eggs, rice, beans, soap and other basic products in the face of a grave economic crisis.
    Díaz blamed the hardening of the U.S. trade embargo by the Trump administration. Economists give equal or greater blame to a plunge in aid from Venezuela, where the collapse of the state-run oil company has led to a nearly two-thirds cut in shipments of subsidized fuel that Cuba used for power and to earn hard currency on the open market….”

    Q: How do you tell poverty in a commie hell-hole from poverty in a (relatively) free country?
    A: Which poor person has paper to wipe his ass.

    1. The fark thread on the Cuban problem was its usual fascinating dive into ignorance. Complaints about the US embargo (yes, it’s stupid, but it’s not even 1% of Cuba’s problem), ignorance about how Venezuela was helping, ignorance about Cuban rationing, ignorance thrice over.

      It also looks Cuba is heading towards making obsolete that old joke about what Socialists used for lighting before candles: electricity.

      1. “…Complaints about the US embargo (yes, it’s stupid, but it’s not even 1% of Cuba’s problem),…”

        It’s rich that if the US trades with some hell-hole, the US is practicing financial imperialism. If the US doesn’t trade, it’s causing poverty.
        In either case, it simply re-enforces the hoary statement that capitalism can exist without communism, but not the other way around.

        1. That’s because America is the progenitor of all that is wrong in the world Sevo. God, that’s like world history 101!?!?!

      2. Venezuela is also in trouble because they borrowed $70 billion from China for infrastructure which never happened and then got China to agree to take $40 billion repaid with oil. That they’d already given to Cuba in exchange for military weapons – and military personnel which is what is keeping the regime in power.

  10. I always thought the dull fish seemed petty, but maybe that says more about me than them.

    My erosion would have been Galt’s Gulch: the rainbow fish realizes he’s not the only beautiful fish in the sea, that, yes, you can, in fact, find other fish to be around who are beautiful in the own way, and don’t go around swimming and butthurt, jealous, and self-righteous about their own personal poverty, a poverty that is deeper than materialism.

    1. So the fish should have moved to Hollywood?

    2. In the revised edition, a portly blob fish is named the most beautiful fish in the sea.

      1. And Rainbow fish becomes a Mariana snailfish.

    3. Oh gawd, sounds like Ayn Rand wrote kid lit. Barf.

      How do you tell the True Believer Objectivist at a meetup? He’s the one everyone else is slowly edging away from…

  11. An alternate read;
    A colorful, flamboyant , gay/trans fish. Is ostracized and bullied by straight/cis-gendered rabble into giving up his/her/their beauty, uniqueness, and self-identity. And forced to conform to the mundane homophobic norms of the fish social construct, the school.

    The End

    1. Yes, absolutely. Because that’s what socialism is all about. Conformity. You can’t have a society of equals unless everyone is forced into being equal. There’s no room for the gay in the socialist utopia.

  12. The message I got from this book was “The best way to make friends is to give your stuff away to them.”
    A worse message can be found in that beloved classic “The Giving Tree”. “Love means giving away everything you have until you’ve literally got nothing left, and also don’t ever expect anything in return. Not even a thank you.”

    No thanks.

    1. “What’s amazing to me about the library is it’s a place where you go in, you can take out any book you want. They just give it to you and say bring it back when you’re done. It reminds me of like this pathetic friend that everybody had when they were a little kid who would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend. That’s what the library is. A government funded pathetic friend.”

      1. If you are going to quote Jerry Seinfeld, at least give the man credit for the quote.

    2. I’ve always thought that “The Giving Tree” was pathetic, in any sense of the word.

      1. I don’t know if I would say I “liked” The Giving Tree as a child, but it certainly impacted me. The message I took from it was that if you stay in an abusive relationship with a selfish person, you’ll end up with nothing and be grateful for it. As a child, I thought it was an incredibly bleak book with a very harsh, but honest, message about the real world. I bought a copy for my kids for that reason.

        1. That’s close to how I saw it. Giving up everything for “love” that isn’t returned in any meaningful way will lead to a bad end for the giver.

  13. Sounds kinda fishy to me.

  14. There must be a better way of teaching the virtue of humility to the rainbow fish without raising the envy of the other fish into a virtue that deserves to be satisfied.

    1. The Ugly Duckling?

  15. Boortz described himself as a libertarian. Joe does Welch tag him as a conservative?

    1. Did Boortz say something against the open borders heterodoxy? (Just kidding Matt.)

    2. Because Boortz is not a libertarian. He is a warmonger scumbag that supported the Patriot Act. Fuck that guy.

    3. Especially as Boortz is what Reason defines as “libertarian”: socially liberal, fiscally conservative and largely statist.

  16. If you really want to read a socialist kid’s book, try the original Babar. I banned that one from the house when the kids were little.

    1. Hell, that book creeped me out even as a kid two decades before I became libertarian.

  17. One fish Two fish Red fish Blue fish.
    Black fish Blue fish Old fish New fish.
    This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say! What a lot
    Of fish there are.
    Yes. Some are red. And some are blue. Some are old. And some are new.
    Some are sad.
    And some are glad.
    And some are very, very bad.

    Different book with fish. I don’t know this one. That one taught me how to read.

    1. Why are they sad and glad and bad?
      I do not know, go ask your dad

  18. This stuff really does work. Fortunately in my case,I was brought up on “The Little Engine that Could”.

  19. “But in these times of democratic socialism and ideological abstractions untethered to real-world habits,”

    Greed and selfishness among young children is very much a real world habit. They have to be taught and encouraged to share, wait their turn, delay gratification etc. Skills required to win a worthy mate when the time comes. The book fills a need, a need for parents to raise their children and be proud of them.

    1. The problem comes when “you have to be taught to share” becomes “everyone is _entitled_ to a share of what you have, until you are reduced to nothing”. If the synopsis in this article is correct, that comes right after the rainbow fish shared his first scale.

      My elementary school teachers 60 years ago would have loved this book – all the better to deliver socialist indoctrination along with the 3 R’s. Public schools these days still deliver the indoctrination, without so much education.

  20. Libertarians won’t last long in this world taking easy umbrage at the statist culture around them.

    The key is to never give the Lefties any money anymore.

    It has worked masterfully against Hollywood, Social Media, and Lefty politicians. They are scream about how people dont pay attention to them anymore.

  21. Libertarian and capitalist children’s literature can exist. The problem is that most libertarians are so thoroughly asocial that no child would want to be read from their books! Little kids don’t want to hear about the virtue of selfishness, or how being poor is all your fault, or stuff like that. Socialists can get away with their shit because socialism works at the family level. But start throwing in selfishness as a virtue and you’ll turn off the kids.

    And stop with the preaching. Kids like kids lit to be FUN. And libertarians are anything but fun. They’re mean scolds.

    So take the same fish book, and the rainbow fish trades one of his scale for something beautiful another fish has. So at the end he still has one shiny scale, but also a pretty seashell, a shiny rock, etc. Just subtly change the nagged sharing into happy transactions. Or something.

    The key to early children’s literature is good artwork. And if there’s one thing libertarians are not good at, it’s art. Sigh.

    1. I think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a very libertarian story. It’s also great art.

    2. Socialism doesn’t work at the family level.

      Families are autocracies, with a king and/or a queen in charge. Their say is absolute.

      Which tells you exactly what socialists want.

      1. I think you meant, “Socialism _only_ works at the family level.” Because that’s the only level where a benevolent autocracy will remain benevolent.

        1. Most of the time.

  22. I had the same initial reaction to the book when I read it to my son. Then I realized – you know, not everything needs to be colored by politics. Maybe this is a just a brightly colored children’s book teaching kids to share.

    Now, Giraffes Can’t Dance – that’s a shameless denigration of the value of hard work and talent. I have my limits.

    1. Some of these folks do not know much about children.

      You got it.

      But if you give a mouse a cookie…

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