February 12, 2003
A Child-Rearing Heresy
David and I have decided to purge Rainbow Fish from Eric's collection. For those of you who are not familiar with this modern children's classic, I will summarize the plot:
Rainbow Fish is a fish covered with beautiful shiny scales (the shiny scales are what makes the book so expensive). But he has no friends. He asks the wise starfish for advice, and is told that to become popular, he must give up his shiny scales. So he does, one per fish, and at the end of the book he is surrounded by friends, each of whom, as well as Rainbow Fish, has a single shiny scale.
Now, this book is supposed to be about sharing, I guess, which is bad enough. I'm not fond of children's books that are too didactic. If the best way to summarize the plot in one sentence is "It's about sharing/giving/loving/having good manners," instead of, "It's about a little boy who travels through an enchanted tollbooth to magical lands" (and only incidentally about the value of education in language and mathematics); or "It's about a train that carries a load of cargo to the city" (and not, even incidentally, about anything else, so far as I can tell), I don't think my kid and I need to read it.
But Rainbow Fish isn't really about sharing. It's about giving up what makes you special and unique and beautiful in order to fit in. The thing the Rainbow Fish is compelled to share is not a toy, or a book, or a treat, or anything else outside himself. It's a part of his body, the part of his body that makes him shine with a unique light. And only when he has distributed his body parts so that everyone has exactly the same shine level, only when he and everyone else are exactly alike, only when he has diminished himself, can he have friends.
So Rainbow Fish is going to the garage, where it will live until our garage sale this summer. I'm sure someone will be happy to pick it up for a dollar, almost entirely unread, all the shiny scales intact. Some happy fool.
Posted by Su Penn at February 12, 2003 12:38 PM
Okay, we won't be getting this book! It'll go on the same list as "The Giving Tree," books-that- everyone-thinks-are-great-but-really-aren't.
Our Quaker meeting gave us "The Giving Tree" for Eric last year. I hate to get rid of it, since it's an inscribed gift, but...but... I can't ever let him read it.
My favorite child's book is "Bronwen, the Traw, and the Shape-Shifter" by James Dickey. I love to read it out loud. So I thought I'd see if James Dickey wrote any other children's books. He did, one called "Tucky the Hunter." I bought it, sight unseen, thinking it had to be good. Turns out it is all about a boy and his pop-gun, and all the animals he shoots in his imagination. It's beautifully written, of course, and beautifully illustrated, but I think I won't let Noah read it until he's about 16 and able to comprehend the metaphors about death. And I was just looking for a light read-aloud... sigh.
Oh, I do agree about Giving Tree, and sounds like I would agree about Rainbow Fish, too. Glad to know I'm not the only one out there. Perhaps there ought to be a club?
You know, my sons never liked Giving Tree when they were little, either. I think you can usually trust what children like. Michael loved the Frances books. She's a little badger who jealously sits in the broom closet on her little sister's birthday singing to herself: "Happy Tuesday to me, happy Tuesday to me..." In one episode she ran away from home and camped out under the dining room table. She just did what she wanted, even if it *was* weird. Good for Frances. Good for kids.
I agree with Su. "Rainbow Fish" and "The Giving Tree" are preachy and ultimately selfish on the part of the author and those adults who 'use the books' on children. I have often thought about how interesting it is that Shel Silverstein published in Playboy Magazine before he published "The Giving Tree."
This also brings to mind the years when I did not understand my revered mentor's discussion of the negative worth of 'sentimental' books, which were, in her opinion, written for adults, not for children. At that early period in my literary education I did not understand. Now, in my work, when I encounter young teachers who are excited by these two books I am never too sure how I want to respond. Positively -- they will absorb more literature and become more critical; or negatively -- let them know another perspective. These books have an interesting staying power, for books I think are of so little value.