If you have a little tyke nearby you probably know the story of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. It’s about a lonely fish with scales of many colors. He is eventually persuaded to give away his beautiful scales, one by one, to the other, duller piscine creatures and builds friendships with them in the bargain. Children are enchanted by the crayon box beauty of the little fish and the budding empathy he exhibits. Teachers and parents have praised the book for teaching the values of sharing and being proud of who you are rather than how you appear.
But look up the book on the Internet and you’ll find a grenade of negative reviews and antagonistic comparisons. The book is accused of promoting liberal social propaganda above independent work ethic, of enforced equalization on behalf of those too lazy to earn their own colorful scales. The book incites heated political discourse worthy of college seminars or street protests.
It’s unlikely Pfister had any motive other than to write a kid’s book and hopefully earn a tooth fairy’s token bounty. Even if he suspected the potential controversy his story might cause, he proceeded with his vision, because the fish’s actions fit the story. Sometimes learning to share is hard. We live on a small planet where resources are finite though needs are infinite, where justice doesn’t always equal fairness, and doing the right thing might make you popular but more, might make you feel better about fitting into the tight spaces of your own soul. So, share what you’ve got. All that said in words and pictures little kids can understand. The Rainbow Fish remains a favorite among many, repellent to others.
And what have we “big kids” learned? Murder, rape, embezzlement, burglary, kidnapping, torture, fraud, graft, blackmail, espionage – all those crimes and more propel the world of books on its publishing carousel. They’re all acceptable aspects of a character as long as that character is the antagonist. The protagonist can exhibit a rumpled suit as well. Drunken, alcoholic, cheating, lying, egocentric, gambling, irresponsible, bullying, sleazy main characters are the mainstay of the written world. Of the real world as well, which is why they all fit their roles so well. Books would be boring if distilled water coursed in the main character’s veins, and every writer knows the protagonist must have a personal flaw to overcome on the way to resolving the plot.
Still, when writing The Tree House Mother, I faced a crisis. The book is about a woman’s relationship with her emotionally absent mother and how it colors her entire life, causing her to make impetuous choices that put her and others in danger. Though a successful artist, Andie’s self-doubt grows until she becomes pregnant and worries that she’ll repeat her mother’s impoverished parenting skills. She chooses to have an abortion.
Abortions are legal in this country but they inflame the perpetual debate over whether or not a woman should ever have one. I struggled with this scene, because I struggle with the entire issue. My grandmother arrived from Europe to America more than 100 years ago as a very young teenager, apparently unaccompanied by family. She’d fled a pogrom that had killed her little brother and left her mother insane. She married only a few years later, and over the next 15 years or so had seven children, all of whom she loved. She also had two self-induced abortions using a coat hanger, either of which could have killed her. She understood little about birth control, and legal abortion wasn’t an option for anyone. I won’t say whether or not I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but my grandmother’s story weighs on my heart. None of this is in my story, only Andie’s dilemma.
It wasn’t Pfister’s story that gave me the confidence to write the controversial scene in my book, but the little fish sometimes swims in the back of my head when I wonder if a certain action will fly or end up sabotaging the story. I had to let Andie remain true to her persona, even when that meant engaging in an act that might cause readers to gasp. It’s the truth to core that lends credibility to a story, that will ultimately allow a story to bear an incident that might be contrary to popular opinion of what is acceptable behavior. Bad guy can do that, but not the good guy. Will Andie’s choice lose an otherwise sympathetic audience?
Judging by the vociferous reviews of Pfister’s kids’ book, maybe 1000 words about scale sharing, I can imagine the reviews about my book (which is not yet published.) I could have allowed Andie to get falling down drunk and suffer a miscarriage, a condition more acceptable to some as it involves chance rather than choice. It wouldn’t have worked as well. (Getting drunk also being a choice.) I might not have had her face an unplanned pregnancy – one less conflict for her to deal with. The ending wouldn’t be as meaningful. Though the mention of Andie’s abortion is a tiny part of the book, the topic of abortion in American culture is incendiary. Yet it makes the conclusion of the story plausible and poignant.
You won’t learn to ride a horse if you’re too frightened to fall; you can’t swim if you won’t put your head in the water. Writing a sweet confection of a book with no controversy at all is likely to garner ho hum interest. Being afraid to write about a contentious topic means being afraid to write. Ultimately it’s the story itself that will show its strength. The worst thing might be if people have no reaction.
The rainbow fish gave away his scales. I feel like he gave one to me.