Ugly Fish by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon (2006), is probably the most horrifying book I’ve come across so far, in my quest to provide social critiques of children’s books. I would summarize the basic plot of the book here, but I think I want you to read the plot as I provide my critique.
And, before I continue, I think it’s important for you to know this book is one of the most popular books in the story time collection at one branch of my local library. That means it gets read fairly often. That means children buy into the messages of this book enough to become excited about it.
We’ll begin in a place I normally don’t touch in these reviews. The author’s bio/note. It reads:
“Kara LaReau was inspired to write this story after reading an article about childhood bullying. The article said some kids actually think it’s cool to be mean to others. With that attitude, Kara says, they’ll probably end up alone. Or, like Ugly Fish, even worse!”
No spoilers yet, so you’ll have to wait for later in my review to find out what happens to Ugly Fish. But, this sounds like a veiled threat, and an intolerance of why some children choose to act like bullies (perhaps they’ve been bullied or are being bullied. Perhaps they believe that it’s cool because someone they admire is mean to others. Perhaps many things are going on that we — everyone outside that’s child’s mind — cannot understand). This bio indicates that the book is about to teach a lack of compassion (at best) and intolerance (at worst).
Ah, but it gets better. The inscription on the book reads:
“For all the ugly swimming around out there — you know who you are.”
First of all, holy shit. That is a threat. Second of all, where does this author get off telling children that they’re ugly? Third, um, isn’t this also a kind of bullying?
Now, it’s time to read the first page! The first page shows Ugly Fish in his tank. The words on the page are:
“Ugly Fish was ugly. And BIG. And mean.”
Oh man. All bullies are now ugly, big, and mean. Let’s begin with the fact this isn’t always true (Mean Girls anyone?). Let’s talk about the fact that it presents the same (tired) trope that “evil” is “ugly” and therefore people who aren’t the currently accepted cultural definition of beautiful must be bad/deserve things to go wrong for them/be lazy/mean/etc. Let’s talk about how bullies aren’t always bigger, and that size may have nothing to do with the type of bullying (I’m thinking of cyber-bullying) that children experience. Let’s talk about how it’s an over-simplification to say just that bullies are mean, because it denies them their humanity.
I remember one discussion with an especially emotionally mature six-year-old several years ago. She wanted to know why some people were mean. Instead of answering her directly, I asked her to think of times she’d been mean and talk to me about what else she’d felt at the time. She thought about this and provided answers that reflected that she understood that people could be having a bad day or a bad week. That she understood sometimes people were mean because they’d had people be mean to them. That she understood that sometimes people just don’t make jokes you like, but you can tell they’re really trying hard to joke.
In other words, she was able to identify the humanity of people who are mean by identifying her own.
I should mention that Ugly Fish, by the illustrations, is clearly carnivorous. He has sharp teeth. Keep that in mind as we go on.
Ugly Fish’s owner puts a new fish in his tank. Teensy Fish. Teensy Fish has no visible teeth. Ugly Fish eats him. The message here is that if you’re a small boy (man) that you aren’t actually masculine at all. The bully will beat you up (eat you). You might deserve it. For being small.
Ugly Fish’s owner puts another new fish in his tank. Kissy Fish. Kissy Fish has no visible teeth. Ugly Fish eats her. Ehm, Kissy Fish is of course female. Because only girls and women want to kiss, clearly. And Ugly Fish eats her. Maybe she was asking for it. She probably provoked him. Lead him on. Right?
Ugly Fish’s owner clearly isn’t the best pet-keeper in the world because two more fish, Stripy Fish and Spotty Fish, are placed in Ugly Fish’s tank. A co-worker of mine suggested animal cruelty was a major factor in this story, and I’m inclined to agree. They are, of course, eaten.
After a bit, Ugly Fish realizes that it was really kind of fun to chase the other fish around the tank. He sinks into depression (his special briny flakes don’t taste as good). But then Ugly Fish’s owner adds yet another new fish to the tank! Shiny Fish.
Shiny Fish resembles a very plump shark. Ugly Fish eagerly tells Shiny fish about his new tank. Shiny Fish, with “sly” eyes, plays along with Ugly Fish showing off his tank. On the second to last page, we see the text:
So Ugly Fish got his wish — a new friend to play with.”
[turn the page]
“And Shiny Fish got his wish, too — a nice new home….all to himself”
The final picture with text shows Ugly Fish’s tail sticking out of Shiny Fish’s mouth — and Shiny Fish is burping.
On the ultimate page (no text), we see this zoomed out: Shiny Fish with Ugly Fish’s tail still sticking out of his mouth is smiling in the aquarium. Next to the aquarium are briny flakes, a green aquarium net, and a book Your Fish & You (which we can assume the owner didn’t read).
So, the moral is that if only Ugly Fish had treated the other fish nicer, he wouldn’t have been eaten.
Well…maybe. I don’t think Ugly Fish’s treatment of the other fish would have mattered. It seems like his owner didn’t really research what types of fish to put in the tank with him (or if other fish should be added to the tank at all. It’s not as though the fish he ate ganged up and spoke to Shiny Fish about seeking revenge on their behalf. I think Shiny Fish would have eaten Ugly Fish anyway (food chain).
But wait, perhaps you’re thinking, if Ugly Fish hadn’t eaten the other fish, Shiny Fish might never have wound up in his tank. Exactly. Might.
This story also teaches the disturbing idea that the only way a bully will stop being a bully is when a larger bully comes along. Sorry kids, you can’t do anything to mitigate the situation. And you can’t rely on adults to do anything either. They’ll probably just feed more fish (kids) to the Ugly Fish (bully).
This book is rich with things to discuss:
- What other reasons might Ugly Fish have eaten the other fish? (He’s a carnivore! He’s a territorial fish! Food chain! etc.)
- Do you think bullies can have a change of heart? Did Ugly Fish show a change of heart?
- This plays directly into the Prison Industrial Complex (if you’re not familiar with this term, check out this blog by Chicago PIC Teaching Collective which distills the idea pretty well) — and the idea that a criminal cannot ever really be rehabilitated, or realize that what they’ve done is wrong.
- Further, if we play this out in human terms, Ugly Fish’s “bullying” of other fish eventually meant that he went to jail (instead of getting eaten).
- With that, let’s return to the author’s bio. What could be “worse” for Ugly Fish than the fate he suffered when Shiny Fish was introduced to his tank?
- Seriously, if you have an answer for that, please leave it in the comments, because I don’t have one.
- Are bullies always male?
- Do bullies deserve to be alone/have no friends? What has it felt like when you haven’t had friends?
- Are bullies always people like you (i.e. – other children your age?)? Do you think adults can be bullies?
In short, I wouldn’t recommend this book to the children in my life, unless I knew they had a parent/teacher who was going to discuss with them at least some of the injustices and intolerances portrayed in this book. And by some, I mean I hope that this book would create an on-going discussion about compassion and understanding, about injustice and intolerance, about what it means to bully and be bullied.