While social commentary in children’s books is more prevalent today, this wasn’t always the case. Tackling hot topics of the time has certainly happened in kids’ books before 1984, but one well-known author in particular changed everything when one specific book was released forty years ago.
Dr. Seuss’ 47th book was published on January 12, 1984, with a silly title typical of the prolific writer’s previous works. The Butter Battle Book may not seem controversial at first glance because of the innocent alliteration on the cover, but it was denounced, by some, for attempting to speak to kids and adults about an escalating bitter conflict on opposite corners of the globe. Seuss combined his signature whimsy with an existential dread rare in books aimed at preschoolers, remaining a sensitive entry in his lengthy catalog. Here’s why this book was such a big deal and why it still matters.
What’s The Butter Battle Book About?
The Butter Battle Book begins in the present for a grandfather and his grandson, as they walk along a wall separating their nation of Yooks from their neighbor. The elder explains to the child their group doesn’t associate with the Zooks on the opposite side of the barrier because of one paramount dining difference: “In every Zook house and in every Zook town every Zook eats his bread with the butter side down!” You see, the Yooks only eat their buttered bread with the spread facing up. This gourmet discrepancy has led to generations of distant conflict.
Grandpa reminisces about how as a younger Yook, he joined the Zook-Watching Border Patrol to ensure his people’s safety. Armed with his arboreal deterrent, the “tough-tufted prickly Snick-Berry Switch, (essentially, a tree branch),” he comes face-to-face with a Zook named VanItch, who breaks his weapon. The Yook retreats to HQ where the Chief Yookerooo gives him a more powerful weapon and a “fancier suit,” sending him back out only to discover his rival has done the same.
The adversaries repeatedly upgrade to a more modern and wackier arsenal, complete with a propaganda morale boost in the form of the Butter-Up Band and the Right-Side-Up Song Girls. The conflict escalates further and further until the Yook Chief and his “Bright Back Room Boys” create The Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo, a minuscule means of mass destruction that will end the Zooks once and for all. The townspeople are led underground to shelters, as we return to present day with Grandpa ready to deliver the grand finale, only to find that VanItch has arrived touting the same powerful device.
The old men are locked in a fatal stare-down, with the final chilling page leaving the reader to question who will be the one to drop the bomb. “We will see…”
Dr. Seuss and The Cold War
Whether you realized it or not as a kid, Dr. Seuss (real name Theodor Seuss Geisel) was never afraid to mix politics into kids’ storybooks and had written other pointed books prior to this one. Yertle the Turtle was an analogy to Hitler’s rise in power during WWII, The Sneetches was about racism, and The Lorax examined environmental issues as they became more important in the contemporary landscape of sustainability. Granted, not every title he wrote was a treatise on civics (although one could argue Hop on Pop is anti-authority even though it isn’t), but Seuss often used his platform to share his political perspective with his young audience and the parents who read those books to their children.
The Butter Battle Book was Seuss’ satirical response to The Cold War, a decades-spanning standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union. The threat of nuclear conflict loomed over the world since the end of WW II in 1945, and by the time Ronald Reagan stepped into the U.S. Presidency in 1981, international tensions reached their peak with many feeling a constant sense of anxiety over the situation.
Two people arguing over butter was ludicrous, and that mirrored Seuss’ stance on the arms race. Alarmed by President Reagan’s attitude, the Cat in The Hat author recalled a piece of history he learned decades earlier about two Italian factions from the Middle Ages – the Ghibellines and Guelphs – who feuded for over a century regarding religious beliefs. What drew Seuss’ attention was his recollection of how one group sliced their apples horizontally, while the opposite cut them vertically. This petty action served as the major inspiration for The Butter Battle Book, with any big issues seemingly forgotten for meaningless trifles and generational disdain.
The Battle Over The Butter Battle Book
When Seuss brought his first manuscript to his publisher Random House, the legendary writer reportedly said, “I have no idea if this is an adult book for children or a children’s book for adults.” Nobody was sure how their readership would react to the topic, unsure if kids could truly understand the deeper message hidden amongst Seuss’ silliness, and more-so if parents would spend money on something like this.
Critics were confused by The Butter Battle Book, opposed to the heavy-handed metaphors and the insertion of a global conflict into something intended for toddlers and adolescents. The doom-and-gloom ambiguous ending mortified some, and the morality tale baffled others. Some libraries in America and Canada refused to carry the book, worried the message and lack of an uplifting ending would be more harmful than educative.
Pundits disliked the book’s pacifist message and moral equivalence, feeling the book was reductive to the actual causes of this international strife and oversimplifying things a little too much.
While it struggled to find its rightful readership in book form, The Butter Battle Book found new life five years after publication through a wonderfully done animated short. Premiering on the TNT channel on November 13, 1989, Ralph Bakshi (the same animator behind the stunning Lord of the Rings animated film from 1979) faithfully adapted the tale into a 30-minute cartoon musical, which was said to be Seuss’ favorite movie version of his work and one that Bakshi equally held high in his heart.
Call it fate or luck, but the airdate had fortuitous timing, as the Berlin Wall tumbled down only a few days earlier, reuniting Germany and signaling the beginning of the end of The Cold War.
Almost 30 years to the day Bakshi’s TV special debuted, Netflix’s Green Eggs and Ham series premiered in 2019. When its’ second season arrived in 2022, it incorporated The Butter Battle Book plot into the series, expanding the plot into 10 episodes and broadening the story into a much larger landscape.
Is The Butter Battle Book okay for kids to read?
The political metaphors in The Butter Battle Book aren’t trying too hard to be subtle, and neither was Seuss with his message. The Yooks were meant to be Americans and the Zooks were The Soviet Union. The wall separating these factions paralleled the Berlin Wall which separated West and East Berlin, intended to keep West Berliners from fleeing to the East. From the expanding military presence on both sides, to the hapless residents of each nation forced to obey and live in a mental state of fear, Seuss shows The Cold War through a simplistic lens that anyone can understand.
At the end of the day, Seuss was seeking to present the idea of conflict resolution to children, perhaps on a scale too large for them to fully comprehend. It’s an uncharacteristic dark comedy with an ambiguous ending that isn’t a satisfying “happily ever after,” but that’s the point. The book is suitable for kids at any level, intending to teach the futility of war, but can also be viewed as a story about how some disagreements grow and fester, causing harm to everyone around them. The solution Seuss offers is de-escalation, and parents can replace the concept of disarmament with open conversation and mediation.
This book fared better than some of Seuss’ other outdated works that have been banned or censored, and is only controversial if you find the concept of peace to be a politicized ideal. It’s not a perfect Seuss book and seems better aimed at older kids than younger ones, but The Butter Battle Book never spreads itself thin as a cautionary tale of what can happen when an unresolved problem grows beyond its boundaries.