First introduced in The Rainbow Fish in 1992, the title character, who finds happiness when he learns to share his iridescent scales, endeared himself to children and adults alike. Written and illustrated by Swiss author Marcus Pfister and published by NorthSouth Books, that picture book spawned a series of titles across a variety of formats, which have been translated into 50 languages and have sold 30 million copies worldwide. In June, NorthSouth (the U.S. arm of Zurich-based NordSüd Verlag) will be celebrating Rainbow Fish’s 25th birthday with the release of the aquatic star’s eighth paper-over-board storybook, You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish, and a Classic Edition of the original picture book, featuring a linen binding and a sheet of stickers showcasing Rainbow Fish’s underwater pals and the eponymous character—in all his shining splendor.
Rainbow Fish’s signature dazzle was high on Pfister’s list of priorities when he first conceived of the character. “I had this idea of a colorful fish sharing his beauty, but I knew if he shared his scales with the other fish, they’d all be colorful like him, but not particularly beautiful,” Pfister recalled. “I had to find something to make it clear that Rainbow Fish was giving away something very special. I knew the technique of holographic foil stamping from my profession as a graphic designer, so I decided to combine that technique with watercolor.”
A quarter century ago, that was hardly a common picture-book embellishment, and the expense of including foil stamping was daunting. Recalling that it doubled the cost of producing a copy of Rainbow Fish, the author said that he and his editor at the time, Davy Sidjanski, “had to decide if it was possible to produce the book with foil, and that took quite a bit of time to figure out. It was quite difficult for Davy to decide whether to do the foil, but in the end, we decided that I’d get only 50% of my usual royalties for the book, and that made it work.”
It was a compromise that paid off handsomely, but clearly it was not just Rainbow Fish’s shimmery appearance that captured the hearts of young readers and their gatekeepers. “I think it must be a combination of his appearance and the story that touches the audience,” said Pfister of Rainbow Fish’s ongoing appeal. “I guess the fact that he is not an untouchable hero, but is one of us, a character that has his defects and debilities, is one of the secrets of the books’ success.”
Beyond the Glitter, a Heart of Gold
Beth Terrill, NorthSouth’s picture book editor, agrees that Rainbow Fish’s popularity is not entirely about his flashy look. “Seeing the books on the shelf, you can’t help but notice the sparkle, and that gets you to stop,” she said. “But once you are inside the book, it is Rainbow Fish’s personality that is most important. He is so human, and what he thinks and does, we all have thought and done. Once accepted into his circle of friends, he is a very good friend. The stories are simply told, with a lot of humor and heart. And that, clearly, stands the test of time.”
In You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish, which will have a 50,000-copy first printing, the title character learns to overcome his resentment at failing to win a game of hide-and-seek with friends. This storyline, Pfister noted, is in keeping with the series’ earlier books. “In my Rainbow Fish stories, I’ve always chosen themes that seemed to be important to me regarding the growing up of our children,” he said. “I think the feeling of losing and its related frustrations are a very important theme, especially since normally it’s not anything anybody likes to talk about.”
The lessons Rainbow Fish learns, and imparts, have long resonated with parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers as well as young readers—which Pfister finds gratifying but not surprising. “When I say a book’s theme is important, I’m not only thinking about our kids,” he explained. “Creating You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish, I thought about how often adults are confronted with different frustrations every day—in the office, in a relationship, wherever. The sooner we learn to manage these frustrations in an intelligent way, the better. And this might be another part of Rainbow Fish’s success: the stories are never addressed only to the kids, but also to us, the adults. And this is important, since the adults are reading these stories to their kids.”
Heather Lennon, NorthSouth’s managing director, who is spearheading Rainbow Fish’s 25th anniversary campaign, remarked on both the timelessness and the timeliness of Rainbow Fish stories. “The books are universal and, especially now, their messages about being kind, being a good friend, sharing, and being part of a community are so very important,” she said.
To commemorate Rainbow Fish’s milestone, NorthSouth—whose titles are distributed by Simon & Schuster—is also issuing a board book edition of Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish in June, and a mini-hardcover edition of Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale in September.
In June, Pfister will travel to the U.S., where he will make presentations at the ALA annual convention in Chicago, and headline an event at the Evanston Library, hosted by the Book Stall of Winnetka, Ill. NorthSouth has created a Rainbow Fish 25th anniversary event kit, downloadable online and is sponsoring a social-media tour of Rainbow Fish finger puppets (available for sale at stores) using the hashtag #rainbowfishworld. Booksellers interested in hosting the Rainbow Fish costume, which will be touring throughout the year, are encouraged to contact Heather Lennon via email. Pfister is eager to visit the U.S. and to reconnect with his American readers. “As my job is quite a lonely one, sitting here in my atelier and thinking about new stories and illustrating, I’m looking forward to meeting and talking to people during my stay,” he said. “And I hope to visit classes and draw a bit with the kids—that would be great!”
And might there be another Rainbow Fish adventure in the hatching? “No, actually I decided to take a little break this year,” said the author. “After publishing 60 books over the past 31 years, I felt the need to catch a breath and to dedicate my time to some of my other artistic interests, sculpture and photography for example. But I’m sure the storyteller will come back, and that a new Rainbow Fish will come back, too—one day!”
You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth, June ISBN 978-0-7358-4287-8
The Rainbow Fish (Classic Edition) by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth, June 978-0-7358-4284-7
Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish (board book) by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth, June ISBN 978-0-7358-4285-4
Rainbow Fish and the Big Blue Whale (mini-hardcover) by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth, Sept. ISBN 978-0-7358-4286-1