Claire Corlett

Fish Food, Fish Tanks, and More
Bad Books: “The Pout-Pout Fish”

Bad Books: “The Pout-Pout Fish”

Deborah Diesen’s “The Pout-Pout Fish”: A book
so wrong it inspired me to make a YouTube channel to warn people about it. The main character is a self-described “pout-pout
fish with a pout-pout face.” Though this seems to imply that, like his
namesake the ocean pout, his face just appears to be frowning to human eyes, this is clearly
not the case as other sea creatures keep complaining about it. The first, Ms. Clam, literally suggests that
he “turn [his frown] upside down.” The second, Mr. Jelly, expresses a wish that
our hero wouldn’t scowl, grimace, and growl. Then Mrs. Squid arrives, asking, “How about
a smile?” Finally, Mr. Eight the octopus flat-out tells
the pout-pout fish that his “sulking” is “unattractive”. At this point, you might expect the narrative
to introduce another character, a true friend to Mr. Fish who could tell him, “Don’t listen
to those jerks. You don’t have to change yourself to please
them.” Or he could even simply ask, “Is something
bothering you? You seem sad, and I care about you.” No such luck. A new character *does* appear, but she is
explicitly described as someone “the gang has never seen before.” A complete stranger. She doesn’t even get a name. She swims up to him, full-on kisses him on
the mouth, and then leaves. Wait, what? Not only is that a gross invasion of personal
space, I’m also pretty sure it qualifies as sexual assault in some places. And the wrongness doesn’t end there– this
violation of his physical being convinces Mr. Fish to identify with his attacker and
go around kissing everyone else, perpetuating the cycle of abuse. With that big grin on his face, perhaps Mr.
Fish has finally been pushed too far and lost his sanity. The worst part of this book is that none of
Mr. Fish’s so-called “friends” actually care about his feelings. The only reason they seem to be talking to
him is to complain that he is harshing their mellow. Not that you can tell, of course, because
clams, jellyfish, octopi, and squids can’t really show expression on whatever they have
that passes for faces, so they’re all massive hypocrites. Certainly none of *them* is smiling. If you concede the premise that Mr. Fish’s
pout is an expression similar to a human frown and not a quirk of piscine anatomy, that only
means there is a *reason* for his unhappiness. Maybe he’s filled with existential angst. Maybe he’s lonely. Maybe his huge mouth is causing him body dysmorphic
syndrome. Or maybe he just has a tummyache. But he is *not* responsible for the happiness
of all his neighbors, nor should he be. Giving this book the benefit of the doubt,
the best moral I can come up with for it (and it definitely has a moral) is this: “The best
way to cheer someone up is to show them love.” But it fails miserably in execution, and comes
off more like, “Smile, or your friends will hate you and follow you around spouting inaccurate
cliches, and strangers will force intimacy upon you.” Basically, “Nobody likes you when you’re sad.” This could be used as the basic premise for
a decent dystopian novel, a 1984 where “doublethink” is replaced with “happythink” and “Big Sparkly
Sister is watching you.” People get sad sometimes. Fish probably do, too. And you know what? It’s okay. We need to be understanding, not judgmental. Don’t read this to my kids.

3 comments on “Bad Books: “The Pout-Pout Fish”

  1. I think you are reading to much into this book. I read this to my toddler and it's one of the only books he really likes. I give each character a different voice to keep the book interesting. In no way is my toddler over thinking the book. He's interested in the animals and the colors. Fish don't talk in real life but they do in the book, does that mean the kid is going to think the fish talk in real life, No of course not. In some places such as France, kissing people is something people do to greet you, as I can see some people are uncomfortable with that sort of thing but I wouldn't go and say the fish sexually assaulted another fish, that's a little extreme. Your making more outta of the book then a child would…You are entitled to your opinion but I kinda wanted to give you a different outlook on it. I think the presentation of the book when you read it is key. 🙂

  2. I too think you are reading too much into this book.
    I do not see this as coming across that being sad isn't acceptable. Mr. Fish's friends just want him to be happy. Isn't that what we want for our children? That doesn't mean that we don't think they should ever be sad, or angry, or any other emotion, but our goals are usually to try and cheer up a friend that is sad. The book makes it seem like there is no reason for Mr. Fish to be sad, just that he is, because he thinks he should be. He is lacking the self worth to think he can be anything but sad. Sometimes it takes a true friend to "tell it to you straight". And sometimes it takes a random person to show you a simple gesture of kindness. That's all the strangers kiss is, a gesture of kindness. You could tell your child that the fish kiss because they don't have arms, so it is their way of hugging, if the kiss part is what bothers you. As well, she does not kiss him right on the lips, she kisses him on the chin, and then he proceeds to kiss his friends on their heads. If a random adult came up to my child and kissed them, they would get a nice fist to the nose. But if my child is having a sad day at school, and another random child comes up and gives my daughter a hug, smiles at her, and walks away, I would be sending a note to his/her parents telling them how proud they should be. A simple gesture of kindness.
    The strange fish doesn't just leave and stay away either. She comes back and obviously joins the gang, or she wouldn't be included in the last smooch. So that child that hugged my daughter could become her best friend because of that simple gesture. I'm all for friendships forged out of basic kindness.

    You could find something wrong with every children's book if you look hard enough for it. And if this book were about teenagers/adults, or intended for teenagers/adults, I could see the whole kiss thing being inappropriate, but in my opinion, this is apples to oranges.

  3. I must say, I am glad that this looks to be something that got published after I was a kid, because it probably would've messed with me a bit.

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