Published 1984 by Random House
New York Times Book Review: “Thank you, Dr. Seuss, for attempting this cautionary tale…[Dr. Seuss’] bleakest book.”
The book starts “on the last day of summer, ten hours before fall.” At first it is narrated by a young boy. He tells the reader that his grandfather took him out to “the Wall.” Then his grandfather takes over as the narrator as he tells his grandson (and the reader) about the conflict between the Yooks and the Zooks. The grandfather and grandson are both Yooks, on the other side of the wall live the Zooks. The only difference between them seems to be that the Yooks eat their bread butter side up while the Zooks eat it butter side down.
“So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!
Every Zook must be watched!
He has kinks in his soul!
That’s why, as a youth, I made watching my goal,
watching Zooks for the Zook-Watching Border Patrol!”
Grandpa then goes back in time to tell his grandson about when he started working for the Zook-Watching Border Patrol. Back then the wall between the two groups was much smaller, but he had a Snick-Berry Switch to keep him safe. However, one day, a Zook named VanItch came along with a slingshot and broke the Snick-Berry Switch!
Grandpa headed to the Chief Yookeroo who was the leader of the watch. He told the “Boys in the Back Room” to come up with a triple-sling jigger to outdo the Zooks. The triple sling-jigger successfully scared off VanItch, but only for a little while. He soon came back with a Jigger-Rock Snatchem which catches the rocks from the triple-sling jigger and shoots them right back!
Grandpa reported back to the Chief Yookeroo that he had failed, but the Chief was not disheartened. He realized the sling shot was too old-fashioned.
“All we need is some newfangled kind of a gun.
My Boys in the Back Room have already begun
to think up a walloping whizz-zinger one!
My Bright Boys are thinking.
They’re on the right track.
They’ll think one up quick
and we’ll send you right back!”
They sent him back with a fancier hat and a gun called the “Kick-a-Poo Kid loaded with Poo-a-Doo Powder and ants’ eggs and bees’ legs and dried-fried clam chowder.” They also trained a spaniel to caring the gun around. As he headed to the wall with the gun-toting dog everyone cheered and yelled their support:
“Fight! Fight for the Butter Side Up!
Do or die!”
This time, however, VanItch was one step ahead. When Grandpa got the wall VanItch was waiting with a Eight-Nozzled, Elephant-Toted Boom-Blitz! Its ammo is high-explosive sour cherry stone pits!
Feeling rather low and beaten, Grandpa headed back to headquarters, but before he got there the Butter-Up Band marched towards him with drums pounding and flags held high! The Right-Side-Up Song Girls sang:
“Oh, be faithful!
Believe in thy butter!”
With his spirits raised, Grandpa headed back to headquarters where Chief Yookeroo promoted him to general! He got a fancy new uniform.
“The Big War is coming. You’re going to begin it!
And what’s more, this time you are certain to win it.”
This time he headed to the wall in a machine called the Utterly Sputter.
“This machine was so modern, so frightfully new,
no one knew quite exactly just what it would do!”
As he got closer he saw VanItch in the same machine threatening to use it as soon as the Yooks make a move. Grandpa headed straight back home where he found the Butter-Up Band depressed and despondent. When he went to headquarters Chief Yookeroo was ready with the next weapon. This time it wasn’t a big machine, but a small egg like bomb called THE BITSY BIG-BOY BOOMEROO!
“You just run to the wall like a nice little man.
Drop this bomb on the Zooks just as fast as you can.
I have ordered all Yooks to stay safe underground
while the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo is around.”
As he ran to the wall Grandpa saw all the Yooks heading underground.
“They were all bravely marching,
with banners aflutter,
down a hole! For their country!
And Right-Side-Up Butter!”
Then our story comes back to present day and Grandpa runs into his grandson and takes him to the wall to see history in the making! The young boy takes over the narration again and describes his Grandpa jumping up onto the wall with the bomb in hand. VanItch was there as well!
“The Boys in HIS Back Room had made him one too!
In his fist was another Big-Boy Boomeroo!”
The story ends with Grandpa and VanItch holding identical bombs toward each other representing the Yooks and Zooks ready to drop them at any moment. The boy calls out to his grandpa:
“‘Grandpa!’ I shouted. ‘Be careful! oh, gee!
Who’s going to drop it?
Will you…?Or will he…?’
‘Be patient,’ said Grandpa. ‘We’ll see.
We will see…”
The Butter Battle Book was written during the Cold War that the United States was having with the Soviet Union and it is clear that that theme is reflected in its pages. Seuss adds a visual difference between the two sides of the wall by having the Yooks in blue and the Zooks in orange. In color theory this is very intentional, because blue and orange are opposites on the the color wheel.
There was some controversy when it was published. Some readers felt that it was anti Ronald Reagan and the nuclear arms race. One mother wrote to Random House stating:
“How dare a well-respected publishing firm…the most blatant form of brainwashing I have ever encountered…I had long respected the Dr. Seuss books as light, whimsical and enjoyable…”
Random House responded with:
“children are going to have to start thinking and using the brain that God gave them. The Butter Battle Book takes no sides. It simply presents the arms build-up as it is right now. You call this brainwashing. We call your response fear of ideas.”
Some readers found the unresolved ending specifically upsetting. Random House responded to these complaints with:
” If there were a happy ending in reality, then there would have been no need to write this book…The book tells the truth and the truth is our only hope…[It] is the most important contribution Dr. Seuss has made in his many years of giving children something to think about.”
Seuss responded simply with, “I want people to think.” He tried to explain, “I’m not antimilitary…I’m just anti crazy.” He felt that it was “the best book I’ve ever written.” It reminded him of his old political cartoons with PM magazine. There was an in-house memo sent around to the Random House Publishing sales people that stated that The Butter Battle Book was “probably the most important book Dr. Seuss has ever created.”
The Butter Battle Book is dedicated to Seuss’ second wife and reads, “For Audrey, with love.” This is the fourth Dr. Seuss children’s book to be dedicated to Audrey Diamond. The other three were The Lorax, I Can Lick Thirty Tigers Today, and (before they were married) Fox in Socks.
While the book was still in the works it came up against several small challenges. First the cover, Seuss originally had just a couple of the Right-Side Up Song Girls waving their banners on the cover, but no one liked it. Suggestions were made for a more confrontational image of the two characters holding the bomb, but in the end the original cover was used. Then the title was questioned. A press release announced the title as The Yooks and the Zooks which felt more Seussian to some, but Seuss’ original title won in the end. There was originally going to be blurb on the cover that would have read:
“Surprisingly, wonderfully, the case for total disarmament has been brilliantly made by our acknowledged master of nonsense, Dr. Seuss…Only a genius of the ridiculous could possibly deal with the cosmic and lethal madness of the nuclear arms race…He has done the world a service.”
Seuss and his publishers agreed that the blurb would turn away parents so it was cut from the cover.
During the final steps of publishing this book Seuss underwent neck surgery for cancer that had spread to his lymph node. He was left with a neck deformity that was luckily covered by most of his clothing. He was on heavy medication for a couple months, but by March (his birthday) he was apparently cancer free.
1984 was a big year for Seuss, not only was this book published that year and more specifically on March 2nd which was Seuss’ 80th birthday, but Seuss also received a Pulitzer Prize
“for his special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.”
The words of the book are extremely strong and represent some of Seuss’ best writing, but the drawings still lack some of classic Seuss style. The machines and backgrounds are much stronger than some of the Beginner Books written around the same time, but the characters are still weak and the lines are scratchy.
A movie version was released five years later in 1989. It is filled with a bit more fluff and several songs to make it longer.
My favorite quote is a bit hard to explain. The first part of it is on one page and then you have to flip to the next page to read the second part. The placement of the quote is part of what I love about it.
On the first page the Yook grandpa has a determined look and is headed up the hill with a new weapon to meet VanItch. The quote reads:
“With our heads help up high
while everyone cheered and their cheers filled the sky:
‘Fight! Fight for the Butter Side Up!
Do or die!”
–Flip the page and see VanItch with a massively huge gun on the backs of two elephants and the Yook grandpa’s face is crestfallen and small—
We didn’t do.
And we didn’t quite die.”
I love the height of the wall, the beautiful landscape in the background, the grandpa and grandson, and in the middle of it a large propaganda poster. It’s just so well laid out.
Thanks for reading,