Hey sugar, smile! You’d be so much prettier if you smiled.
My daughter was gifted a copy of The Pout-Pout Fish, by Deborah Diesen, for Christmas. At first glance it seems great: fun illustrations, catchy rhyming scheme, the words “New York Times Bestseller” on the cover.
It took one read through to discover that it is insidiously terrible.
The eponymous pout-pout fish swims through the ocean, where he is accosted by a series of other ocean creatures who tell him to smile and that he is bringing everyone else down (e.g., “‘Hey Mr. Fish, you kaleidoscope of mope, How about a smile? A little joy? A little hope?'”). The pout-pout fish repeats to each creature that he would if he could, but that it is just the shape of his face. Eventually, a stranger swims up to him and kisses him with no warning, at which point he discovers that his lips are for kissing, not pouting, and he goes around kissing the creatures that accosted him earlier.
- It normalizes street harassment. I know, I know. It’s a kids’ book about fish. They’re in the ocean. No one is groping the pout-pout fish or commenting on the size of his rear, right? During the years I lived in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Boston in my late teens and twenties, one of the most common types of street (and public transit) harassment I was the recipient of was being told my strangers to smile, Just smile! You have such a pretty face, why don’t you smile? This is a real form of harassment, even if it sounds like it’s couched in benign terms. a) Many people (particularly women) in public wear a neutral or slightly hostile expression in the hopes of warding off unwanted advances. b) Telling someone to smile is a way of telling them that their feelings are less valid than yours.
- It normalizes body shaming. The pout-pout fish repeatedly tells other creatures that his face is his face, but he is told again and again that his “pout” (i.e., his mouth) is unacceptable. You could also call this treatment bullying.
- It runs roughshod over consent. The stranger fish does not ask the pout-pout fish if she can kiss him, nor does the pout-pout fish ask other creatures if he can kiss them.
Why this matters
Children are born egocentric: believing that the only possible view of the world is one’s own. For example, children are not born with a sense of object permanence; they have to learn (usually by about 8 months old) that objects still exist even when they are not in one’s direct line of sight. Likewise, perspective-taking and empathy are learned behaviors. Children actually need to learn that other people like and dislike different things and that other people have feelings that are valid. It is also really, really important to teach kids about consent and body integrity, which includes teaching them that they get to say who is allowed to touch their bodies and how, and that other people are allowed to set rules about how they do and do not want their bodies touched. If you talk with your kid regularly about how she needs to ask a friend and get an “OK” before hugging or kissing that friend, reading The Pout-Pout Fish to her is going to seriously undermine that message.
tl, dr: There are so many good children’s books out there. Don’t bother with this one.