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Fish is Fish

by Leo Lionni


Fish is Fish raises questions about how we know things and about what might make creatures superior or inferior.

Two friends, a tadpole and a fish, live in a pond until the tadpole becomes a frog and leaves. He brings back fantastic descriptions of the outside world, and the fish tries to explore this other world for himself. However, he finds out that he cannot breathe outside the water and is saved by the frog.

Read aloud video by Miss Jenichen

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

There are a few philosophical issues in this story. This module describes only two.

When the frog describes birds, cows, and people, the fish imagines them as fishlike creatures with a few special features. Most children would say that such creatures do not exist. You can ask how they can be sure of this, which would lead to a discussion about how we know what we know.

The story clearly shows that there is one thing that the frog can do, but the fish cannot: breathe outside of water. You can start an interesting discussion about whether this limitation makes the fish inferior to the frog. This can be extended to a conversation about human capabilities and what it means not to be able to do something that others can.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Look at the kinds of creatures the fish is imagining.

  1. Do you think it is possible that these creatures exist? Why or why not?
  2. Is it possible to know that something exists without having seen it yourself? How do we decide this? What are some different ways that we come to have knowledge?
  3. Sometimes, we read stories about things we have never seen or experienced before. For example, most of us have read stories in which animals speak to each other in English, although none of us have seen talking animals before. It’s easy to imagine this in our heads. But how do we know that what we are imagining is not real? Could it be real?
  4. Have you ever had a dream that felt so real when you were dreaming, you thought it was real life? If it felt real but was still a dream, how do you know you’re not dreaming now?

The fish finds out that he cannot breathe outside water, although the frog can.

  1. Are there things the fish can do that the frog cannot?
  2. Do you think the frog is better than the fish?
  3. Does it make sense to compare the frog and the fish?
  4. Have you ever tried doing something and then realized you just couldn’t do it, even though some other people can?
  5. Some people are better than others at certain things, like shooting baskets or skipping rope. If a person is better at something than other people, does that make her a better person?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Amani Talwar. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

Download & Print Email Book Module Back to All Books
Back to All Books Illustrated book cover for Fish Is Fish featuring a fish in a pond with a thought bubble. The thought bubble contains a fish-like creature that is more colorful and has wings. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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