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...