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The Rainbow Fish

By Marcus Pfister


The most beautiful fish in the ocean is asked to share one of his shining scales with a little blue fish, and to which he refuses. All the other fish in the sea leave him alone, and he wondered why. He goes to the wise octopus for advice, and she tells him to give away his scales. Rainbow Fish reluctantly does so, except for one. In the end, he is less beautiful then he was before, but he has new friends and is now the happiest fish in the sea.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

Marcus Pfister’s award-winning children’s book The Rainbow Fish raises questions about selfishness and the importance of sharing. In the book, Pfister portrays Rainbow Fish as a vain character due to his shining scales. He is described as the “most beautiful fish in the sea.” When a blue fish asks for one of his scales Rainbow Fish refuses, and this causes all the other fish to leave him all alone. This shows the conceitedness that the Rainbow Fish has. However, after everyone leaves, Rainbow Fish wonders, “What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?” Up until that point, his pride in his scales was the only thing that made him happy, at least according to him. When everyone began to ignore him, he began to question what he knew as happiness. The Wise Octopus, whom Rainbow Fish was told would be able to help him, tells the confused fish to share his scales. Rainbow Fish questions if he could ever be happy without them, because that's all that he ever knew. In the end, he decides to share his scales and as a result, he becomes the happiest fish in the sea.

Was it really selfish of Rainbow Fish to give away something that he treasured? Even though he had many scales, he valued all of them. In order to elevate the happiness of the group, should he really give away something that is rightfully his just to make others feel happy? Is this book saying that if you don't give away your superficial objects, people will avoid and dismiss you? Doesn’t Rainbow Fish deserve to choose what he wants to do with his own possessions? One could also argue that the pride and vanity that Rainbow Fish displayed was the reason the other fish didn't like him. Was he just showing off his scales? Should Rainbow Fish have been prepared to share his scales? Would Rainbow Fish have been just as happy at the end of the story if he hadn’t given away his scales?

The story also relates to a core notion of basic utilitarianism, the happiness of the group vs. the happiness of the individual. The basic of utilitarian tenets of "The greatest good for the greatest number" and "Maximizing happiness across the population" are easily apparent when reflecting on Rainbow Fish's decision and the consequences. In the Rainbow Fish's case, theoretically, he was going to be a little less happy if he lost his scales, but as a result his friends will become much happier. In practice, though, giving everyone a scale actually made him even more happy. This is a clear case of moralizing and it is worth reflecting on.

The children may say that Rainbow Fish should share his scales because he has so many of them. They may also say that Rainbow Fish should not have to share his scales because it is his choice to make. They may also say that Rainbow Fish could have been nicer about saying no to the blue fish, because they may see that this is the bigger reason that the other fish had for disliking Rainbow Fish. As well, they may say the blue fish should have respected what Rainbow Fish decided, because after all they are his scales. The children should relate to their own experiences about sharing items they did not want to, as well as what happened when they wanted something but did not get it. How did they know what was the right choice to make, to give or not to give? Did they understand why a person may or may not want to share something? Did they treat the person fairly if they did not want to share their possessions?

The Rainbow Fish is an excellent book because it asks the question if the consideration of the happiness of all is reasonable at the cost of one’s own happiness. The children may argue that having friends is valuable to them, so they would give up something they cherished. They may also argue that Rainbow Fish shouldn’t have had to share his scales and still be accepted by the other fish, because it seems unfair to be shunned by a community just because you were born with something nice. This book poses the moral that being selfish and unkind will leave you lonely, but it also leaves the door open for discussion on the topic of how much should you give in order make friends? Where do you draw the lines? Sharing is a topic that remains on many children's minds, so this book is a good way to introducing them to the finer points of the topic.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Before reading

  1. How many of you kids have ever owned an item that you didn’t want to share?
  2. If you were made to, did it make you happier or sadder?
  3. Would you rather do the right thing or do the thing you want to do?
  4. Would you rather have something really special all to yourself or have friends?
  5. Is being unique more important than being liked?

During reading

When Rainbow Fish refuses give the blue fish one of his scales

  1. Was Rainbow Fish wrong?
  2. Was the blue fish acting out of line for asking for something so dear to Rainbow Fish's heart? Was he asking too much of Rainbow Fish?
  3. What’s the point of being beautiful if you have no friends to admire them?

The Octopus tells Rainbow Fish to give away his scales

  1. Is the octopus right in saying having friends is more important than being beautiful?
  2. When the octopus says, “… You will discover how to be happy,” is she saying that what Rainbow Fish thought of as happy before wasn’t actually true happiness?

The blue fish receives a scale

  1. Is it selfish of the other fish to demand Rainbow Fish of all his scales?
  2. The book says that Rainbow Fish grew more and more delighted as he gave away his scales. Is this true in all cases? If not, give examples.

Questions after reading

  1. Was Rainbow Fish's decision to share worth it?
  2. Rainbow Fish was happy with his scales, and he was happy with his new friends. Are there different kinds of happiness?
  3. Are they true friends if one of the main reasons they like Rainbow Fish is because he gave them something pretty?
  4. If Rainbow Fish refused to give the blue fish the scale politely, would this have changed the other fish’s perception of him?
  5. Do you share with your friends? Do you share everything with them?

This book module deals with ethics, specifically fairness. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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