A case for subversive children's stories: Contrasting the messaging in The Rainbow Fish with Room on the Broom

When we allow children to live out their bully-duping fantasies, to make fun of adult institutions, encourage imagination over reality, disruption over self-righteousness we enable them to figure out how they can improve the status quo.

Ashima Narain May 06, 2020 10:14:32 IST
A case for subversive children's stories: Contrasting the messaging in The Rainbow Fish with Room on the Broom

I am in lockdown with a three, four, five and six-year old. This means that I referee a lot of fights, my hair has reached a shocking shade of white, and with three girls relentlessly playing “Princess-Princess” — when this coronavirus lockdown ends and I need it the most — I will have no make-up left. It also means that because of the sheer number of daily picture book read-alouds, I have developed a severe allergy to stories with ghastly moral messaging.

So when my middle daughter brought me The Rainbow Fish, all the enthusiasm I could muster was an eye-roll. It is an exquisitely illustrated book that tells the story of the “most beautiful fish in the ocean” who has two problems as I see it: first, that he is vain; and second — and more disturbingly — all the other plainer fish want to pluck out his iridescent scales to boost their own beauty quotient, and get upset when Rainbow Fish doesn’t want to be dismembered.

His pride in his gorgeousness and selfishness at wanting to stay whole, leave him feeling lonely as the others won’t play with him. So he seeks out a wise, old, cave-dwelling octopus who advises Rainbow Fish to give away his scales in order to be happy.

A case for subversive childrens stories Contrasting the messaging in The Rainbow Fish with Room on the Broom

Marcus Pfister's The Rainbow Fish. Image via Simon and Schuster

Soon after receiving this counsel, a little blue fish approaches him to ask for one of his stunning scales. Remembering the promise of friendship, Rainbow Fish reluctantly pulls one out and hands it over, and suddenly feels a bit lighter. The delighted blue fish then rushes to tell his friends that Rainbow Fish is now willing to distribute his body parts and in due course, Rainbow Fish is left with only one iridescent scale but many friends, and is happy. The End.

This book has won multiple awards, is a best-seller and steadfastly remains on almost all the global lists of best children’s literature. From 1990s Switzerland to 2020 India, Rainbow Fish has traversed time and continents to tell a moralising narrative on the joys of sharing. I am not anti-sharing, or anti-frolicking fish, but I am suspicious of any conflict resolution that relies solely on ‘asking an adult’ (in this case, an octopus) how to make it better. I am even more wary when the advice works.

Where is the struggle from which creative thoughts bloom?

The ideas about the acquisitional nature of friendship, relinquishing uniqueness for homogeneity, and even the creepy ‘scale-harvesting’ metaphor that hints faintly at a socialist redistribution of wealth, are all unexpected and fascinating finds in a children’s book. Sadly they remain unexplored, and this hazy hope for subversion is unrequited, leaving us with only the facile adage “sharing is caring”.

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Here is the crux of the problem with moral crusading: children hear their parents telling them to share their toys with their siblings and friends, but see their parents lock all their valuables into an impenetrable ‘Godrej’; parents tell children to share their cupcakes, yet they would never consider sharing their evening drink with the live-in cook. Simple tales mean simple rules to follow, but it is clear there is one set of rules for kids, and an entirely different set for adults. Should they do what they are told to, or do what they see?

A case for subversive childrens stories Contrasting the messaging in The Rainbow Fish with Room on the Broom

Room on the Broom features a kind and clumsy witch who keeps losing her belongings but finding friends

One of my children’s favourite books is Room on the Broom, about a kind and clumsy witch who keeps losing her belongings but finding friends. It is a story told in rhyming couplets by Julia Donaldson with rich illustrations by Axel Scheffler. The witch is flying on her broomstick through the sky in something of a gale, and her hat, bow and wand are blown off one at a time. They are retrieved respectively by a polite dog, a polite parrot and a polite frog, none of whom know where she is going, yet are keen to join her on her modest broom. With the excess baggage, the broom snaps in two and her motley crew tumbles into a bog, while she flies into a cloud and is followed out by a hungry dragon. As the dragon prepares to gobble her up, the dog, cat, frog and bird rise out of the bog in a muddy coagulation and scare the dragon off. The witch thanks her friends, creates a new, bespoke broom for the comfort of all her inter-species companions, and they resume their travels together. The End.

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This tale is also about the reciprocal nature of sharing, but it is fun and satisfying because Donaldson understands that pranks, humour and other values that don’t naturally belong in the adult world rule the imagination of children. Here, four different species unite instinctively to form a unique ‘feathered and furred’ beast that ‘yowls, growls, croaks and shrieks’. The struggle, solution and triumph through good-natured trickery is all their own. The beast’s unique look and language terrify the dangerous dragon — a lucid metaphor on how unifying diverse and original ideas can outwit authority, to live happily ever after. While flat and humour-less tales are shameless displays of adult manipulation, subversive plots enable children to fantasise about mastery of their own fate — and are often good reminders for the grownups who read them too.

In our own home, I tried to channel the creative spirit of the book to protect the peace (and my sanity). Earlier, when bitter wars waged over propriety of the panda-corn (a fat, fluffy, magical amalgam of animal and unicorn), I would threaten my children with “no weekend episodes of Puppy Dog Pals”. This quelled the battle for only as long as I stayed in the room. Now, when llama-corn is under attack, I throw them a jhaadoo. Their imagination is sparked as they hurtle towards it shouting their claims over the characters, “I am the dog”, “I am the cat”, “I am the frog!” Partisan interests are surrendered for the greater good as they squeeze onto the flimsy broom, and charge the ‘mama-dragon’, as one. My role as the authority figure with illiberal inclinations binds my children together. I am sure experts will have many things to say about the consequences of encouraging children to view adults as forces to be vanquished, but frankly my dear, I think it is the need of the hour.

A case for subversive childrens stories Contrasting the messaging in The Rainbow Fish with Room on the Broom

Room on the Broom, redux. Photo © Ashima Narain

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When we allow children to live out their bully-duping fantasies, to make fun of adult institutions, encourage imagination over reality, disruption over self-righteousness we enable them to figure out how they can improve the status quo; and in this we too can venture past our own boundaries. Rigid moral instruction is pushy and unsympathetic, but subversion is nuanced, it requires interpretation of and negotiation with circumstance. Without it, we become complicit in our own conformity and blinkered ideals.

This is not a baseless allegation akin to the theory that chemicals in the water make frogs gay. Let me illustrate: a week into the current lockdown, various parenting groups on social media erupted with excitement as the minister for Information and Broadcasting announced (a few days apart) that both the much-loved mythological serials from the late ‘80’s would be re-telecast on their TV channels and online services (that every cable operator in India has to provide). Thus, thoughtfully delivering ‘guilt-free’ edu-tainment for four hours daily, seven days a week, for the nation’s children. Here, it is not the content of the texts that needs to be examined but the context and cause of this deceptively placid act. The symbolism of a government that mandates religious programming in the aftermath of the deeply divisive anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests is so extraordinary and so potent that it can only be rivaled by the epics themselves.

When we exit the lockdown and enter a new era, we need civic virtue born from the understanding of democratic principles, not from indoctrination. We need citizens who recognise the subversion of democratic values and are subversive enough to question and call them out. We need people who can unlock their imagination to actualise the impractical and impossible. And who better to lead the charge than the grownups who read The Gruffalo to their children?

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I asked Bijal Vachharajani, the editor of Pratham Books and an award-winning children’s author, to list four of her favourite subversive children’s books:

1. Where the Wild Things Are — Maurice Sendak

2. The Why-Why Girl — Mahasweta Devi, illustrated by Kanyika Kini

3. Stinky Cheese Man — Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith

4. I Want My Hat Back — Jon Klassen

Ashima Narain is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker.

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