Here’s Why This Teacher Says the Book “Rainbow Fish” Might Be Outdated

This 1990s childhood classic might bring fond memories for some, but one teacher has sparked a reexamination of its message.

Those who grew up in the ’90s might remember a children’s book about a fish with beautiful rainbow scales, which were depicted with sparkly holographic foils. The book in question, The Rainbow Fish, has a straightforward premise, but some are looking at it critically more recently, and bringing up a problematic message hidden beneath its surface.

One teacher recently gave his hot take about the piece of children’s literature on TikTok, and it opened up the conversation about how the book demonstrates a missed opportunity in a more child-friendly message. Here’s why the book might not hold up in modern classrooms.

What is The Rainbow Fish about?

The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister is an award-winning 1992 children’s picture book that was so successful it spawned a series of Rainbow Fish books, an animated TV series and a short film.

The main message of the book is about sharing with others rather than being selfish. The book’s protagonist, Rainbow Fish, is a fish with beautiful scales that are unique from all the other fish. Because of his rainbow scales, he sees himself as better than the other fish around him. He is so vain he refuses to share his scales with the other fish when they ask him to. Since Rainbow Fish refuses to share, the other fish refuse to play with him. But after speaking with the wise octopus, who tells him he must share his scales with the other fish, Rainbow Fish gives one scale each to the other fish and their friendship is restored through his humility.

This popular book has been a favorite since its publication, but it may not be one of the best children’s books ever written due to a problematic theme.

Why do some teachers not like The Rainbow Fish?

Although the theme of selfishness versus sharing sounds harmless enough, there are some underlying problems some teachers are pointing out. One of these commentators is TikTok creator and grade-school teacher Mr. Vương (@teamvuong), who shared his opinion on The Rainbow Fish in a TikTok video that’s received over 114,000 views and over 16,000 likes as of publication.

@teamvuong Poor Rainbow Fish. #teachersoftiktok #teachersfollowteachers #teachertok #literacy #therainbowfish #readaloud ♬ original sound – Mr. Vương

In some ways, The Rainbow Fish could have been a children’s book about diversity—the Rainbow Fish has metallic scales that the other fish do not. Instead, as Vương points out, the message is problematic because, in giving away pieces of himself, Rainbow Fish is buying friendship. In other words, the friendship he reaches through sharing his scales is conditional.

“I think the story would’ve worked better if they just played on Rainbow Fish’s character flaw, which was that he was not humble and that he thought he was better than everybody,” Vương says in the video. “But this happens: when Rainbow Fish said ‘no’ and drew a boundary, all the other fish decided not to play with him. That made it more about how all the other fish didn’t accept him because he didn’t give up his scales, rather than them responding to his stuck-up behavior,” Vương continued.

In his interpretation of the story, Rainbow Fish receives acceptance from others because he changed himself for them. “So he got acceptance when he gave up parts of who he was. He had to change to get others to like him,” Vương said.

If you’re a teacher like Vương, it can be hard to wade through classroom material. Check out these true stories about teachers and inspiring books for teachers that will help you stay motivated to shape young minds.

What others are saying about The Rainbow Fish

In Vương’s classroom, he pointed out that he read the story to his students without sharing his opinion with them. Some of the children reached the same conclusion that he did—that Rainbow Fish has to change himself or “buy” acceptance. Other kids read it as a message of selfishness. The grade-school teacher added in his video that he loved using the book as a critical-thinking teaching experience for kids to dive deeper into theme interpretation.

Meanwhile, in Vương’s comment section of the video, many people agreed with his take on the book, while others remained firm in their beliefs that children cannot read that deeply into a story. Other teachers have said similar things about The Rainbow Fish, including a Montessori preschool teacher named Megi (@megi_learn_and_play), who shared a video on TikTok explaining why she refuses to read certain children’s books to her students.

@megi_learn_and_play In recent years, there has been a movement in early years settings to remove certain books from their collections. This is often due to concerns over the messages that these books may convey, and a desire to promote more inclusive and diverse representation in children’s literature. there is many books that have amazing stories and will stay in my shelves for years to come. #eyfs #preschoolteacher ♬ original sound – Megi | Early Years Educator

A search through TikTok and online articles reveals that others call this story “gross” if you read it literally, as the fish is “dismembering” parts of himself to be accepted, while some extreme causes take a political viewpoint in their analysis. As with many things colored by nostalgia, the story elicits differing feelings across the spectrum.

Cianna Garrison
Cianna Garrison is a California-based freelance writer who covers everything from food news to tech to lifestyle. Her work has appeared in Elite Daily, How-To Geek, Review Geek, Truity and other publications. She received her Bachelor's degree from Arizona State University in 2018. In her free time, she likes to read, write fiction and poetry, and perform in live theater.