The Butter Battle Book
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and paperback)|
|LC Class||PZ8.3.G276 Bu 1984|
|Preceded by||Hunches in Bunches|
|Followed by||You're Only Old Once!|
The Butter Battle Book is a rhyming story written by Dr. Seuss. It was published by Random House on January 12, 1984. It is an anti-war story; specifically, a parable about arms races in general, mutually assured destruction and nuclear weapons in particular. The Butter Battle Book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
This book was written during the Cold War era, and reflects the concerns of the time, especially the perceived possibility that all life on Earth could be destroyed in a nuclear war. It can also be seen as a satirical work, with its depiction of a deadly war based on a senseless conflict over something as trivial as a breakfast food. The concept of a war based on toast is similar to the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, which was nominally based on an argument over the correct end to crack an egg once soft-boiled.
The Yooks and Zooks live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The narrator of the story is a Yook child whose grandfather takes him to the wall, explaining he is a retired soldier. The Yooks wear blue clothes; the Zooks wear orange. The primary dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an escalating arms race, which results in the threat of mutual assured destruction.
The race begins when a Zook named Van Itch slingshots the Yook patrolman's (Grandpa in his younger years) "Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch" (a switch-esque truncheon covered with prickly burrs). The Yooks then develop a machine with three slingshots interlinked, called a "Triple-Sling Jigger". This works once; but the next day Van Itch counterattacks with his own creation: The "Jigger-Rock Snatchem", a machine with three nets to fling the rocks fired by the Triple-Sling Jigger back to the Yooks' side. Every time the patrolman is defeated, he reports this to his general, who tells him not to worry ("My Bright Boys are thinking; my Bright Boys are thinking"), and three intelligent Yooks are shown drafting plans for a more modern weapon.
The Yooks then create a gun called the "Kick-A-Poo Kid", loaded with "powerful Poo-A-Doo powder and ants' eggs and bees' legs and dried-fried clam chowder", and carried by a trained Spaniel named Daniel. The Zooks counterattack with an "Eight-Nozzled Elephant-Toted Boom Blitz", a machine that shoots "high-explosive sour cherry stone pits". The Yooks then devise the brand new "Utterly Sputter": a large blue vehicle mainly intended "to sprinkle blue goo all over the Zooks". The Zooks counterattack with a Sputter identical to the Yooks'. Eventually, each side possesses a small but extremely destructive red bomb called the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo", and neither has any defense against it, so while the Yooks' patrolmen and Van Itch drop theirs, the Yooks and Zooks will stay underground so they won't get blown away.
No resolution is reached by the book's end, with the generals of both sides on the wall poised to drop their bombs and waiting for the other to strike. The narrator asks his grandfather, "Who's gonna drop it? Will you or will he?" To which Grandpa replies, "Be patient. We'll see. We will see."
There was an animated TV special by animator and filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, narrated by Charles Durning and produced by and aired on TNT on November 13, 1989. The special followed the book closely, notably in its preservation of its original cliffhanger ending, with the title card "The end... maybe" at the conclusion of the story. Seuss himself called the short the most faithful adaptation of his work.
The cliffhanger ending was undone by the Berlin Wall opening just four days before the TV show aired. The wall had been taken as a simple fact of life in the book. As the TV show aired floods of East Germans poured though the wall, celebrating the end of Soviet domination.
- Charles Durning as Grandfather
- Christopher Collins as Chief Yookeroo and Various Yooks
- Miriam Flynn as Yookie-Ann Sue, Teacher and Various Yooks
- Clive Revill as Van Itch
- Joseph Cousins as Grandson
Censorship and analysis
An article in the July 27, 1984 issue of the conservative magazine National Review found it plausible that the book was not more popular because of Seuss' promotion of a theme of "moral equivalence", where the difference between the Soviet Union and the United States was equivalent to a disagreement over the proper side on which to butter bread.
On the other hand, Roger S. Clark, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law, argued in an article in the New York Law School Law Review that "The Butter Battle Book ... captures the arms race and the development of weapons of war. ... The book struck such a chord with me when it came out in 1984 (which was also Seuss’s eightieth birthday). Something Orwellian about the timing! While its message is timeless, I suspect Seuss was well aware of the context he was writing in. It was a time when many people the world over, especially organizations of doctors and lawyers, were groping their way toward the massive civil society effort that led eventually to the advisory proceedings on nuclear weapons being brought through the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. General Assembly."
- Dr. Seuss considered the 1989 television special of The Butter Battle Book to be the most faithful rendition of any of his works.
- Schrader, Alvin M., and Canadian Library, Association (1995). Fear of Words: Censorship and the Public Libraries of Canada. Ottawa, Ont.: Canadian Library Association
- "Challenged Books" University of Saskatchewan website
- The Butter Battle Book, National Review, July 27, 1984, page 16
- Clark, Roger S. "Is The Butter Battle Book’s Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo Banned? What Has International Law to Say About Weapons of Mass Destruction?" New York Law School Law Review (v.58 2013/14) pp.657-658