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Literature / The Butter Battle Book

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Which side is your butter on?

The Butter Battle Book is a 1984 children's book by Dr. Seuss and undoubtedly his darkest.

Written during (and intended to reflect directly on) the Cold War, it tells the story of an arms race between the Yooks and the Zooks, whose villages are divided by a wall all because they can't agree on which side of their bread to butter, leading up to what is all but stated to be a Mutually Assured Destruction.

Ralph Bakshi gave the book an Animated Adaptation in 1989, the last to be produced during Dr. Seuss' lifetime. Seuss regarded it as the best adaptation of any of his works. Netflix's Green Eggs and Ham: The Second Serving also takes heavy inspiration from the book, being a spy thriller focused on the Yook and Zook War (fought over, as you may have guessed, which side of their bread to spread butter on)- though none of the cast of the book appear and, unlike the book the war ultimately ends peacefully and no one is harmed.

Both book and animated special provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The nuclear bomb developed is called the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo".
  • An Aesop: The book is about both the pointlessness of war and the Cold War arms race, of all things. Two tribes called the Yooks and the Zooks are divided by a wall, and the societies can't get along because the Yooks eat their bread butter-side up, while the Zooks do the same butter-side down. Both groups start developing weapons to attack the other, a process which escalates until they independently develop the "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo," a bomb capable of wiping out all life. The story ends with a child—the narrator—watching as his grandfather and Van Itch stand poised to drop their Boomeroos, begging for an answer: "Who'll drop it first?" It's a simple but powerful way of saying that wanting to kill someone or disliking a society simply because they're different from you is, for lack of a better term, completely stupid.
  • Artifact Title: The animated adaptation keeps the word "book" in the title, despite obviously not being one.
  • Attack Deflector: The Zooks devise a missile defence system known as the Jigger Rock Snatchem, which is designed to hurl back rocks fired by the Yooks' triple slingshot.
  • Bigger Stick: Each side counters the other's weapons with bigger, more powerful weapons, until they both build an equally powerful weapon that could destroy them all at once.
  • Bird People: Both the Yooks and Zooks have curved bird-like beaks.
  • Black Comedy: It's as whimsical and silly as any standard Seuss cartoon, but has a more satirical message, and closes with the assumption that both sides will completely eradicate each other in what is all but stated to be a cartoon variant of nuclear warfare.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The Yooks eat their bread butter side up, and are horrified that the Zooks eat theirs butter side down. The two peoples' clothes are even blue and orange.
  • Cerebus Rollercoaster: The Silly Reason for War comes as pretty funny at first when all it consists of is building silly and increasingly silly weapons, until it's taken to its logical conclusion with both sides building the equalivent of nuclear bombs.
  • Crapsaccharine World: A story set in silly Dr. Seuss drawn world with Bird People going to war over how to serve breakfast, and it ends with them getting ready to blow each other up.
  • Cute as a Bouncing Betty: The name "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo" sounds humorous, but it's also a ridiculously potent explosive. The name was picked as a reference to real-life nukes with similar names.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • As far as Dr. Seuss books go, this is his darkest children's book. Not only does it deal with (a parody of) the Cold War and the idea of the atom bomb, but it also doesn't have a happy ending.
    • Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation makes the whole thing even darker, adding an unsettling sequence showing the scientists making the bomb during an eerie musical number.
  • Dirty Communists: The name Van Itch sounds very similar to the stereotypical Russian surname Ivanovitch. The Zooks also dress in orange, to contrast with the blue Yooks.
  • Downer Ending: While it ends just before the ugly part happens, a happy ending is pretty much out of the question. Either side dropping the bean will almost certainly destroy both sides if they work as advertised, since the dividing wall goes right through the middle of the territory and they're threatening to drop it right off the wall itself (the animated version heavily implies that the leaders know this and are setting the protagonist up, which is why all but one member of each side are currently hiding in underground bunkers). Even if that wasn't the case, it still comes down to one side dropping theirs and eradicating the other or both sides dropping at the same time and eradicating everyone. However, nobody dropping the bomb is also an option, since that's what happened at the end of the real Cold War that the book is based on.
  • Eagle Land: Yook sounds very similar to Yank, Grandpa wears a blue and yellow uniform similar to the modern US Army's dress blues, and the Yooks believe in watching and containing the rival superpower.
  • Escalating War: Throughout the story, the Zooks and the Yooks engage in what is essentially a pissing contest to see who can make the biggest weapon until both of them have what is all but stated to be a nuclear bomb. And tying in with the Cold War allegory, neither side ever takes a shot (save for Van Itch slingshotting the Yook protagonist's first weapon).
  • Failed Future Forecast: The animated special (which, like the book, uses a Berlin Wall expy) aired four days after the real Berlin Wall fell.
  • Fantastic Nuke: The "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo" is described as a "globbing, throbbing gumdrop" that will "blow those blasted Zooks away to Never Neverland."
  • Faux Affably Evil: Van Itch has a Slasher Smile while gleefully talking about blowing every last Yook into small smithereens.
  • Four-Star Badass: Both Grandpa and Van Itch have been promoted to general by the time the Yooks and the Zooks have the bomb.
  • Funny Foreigner: Van Itch talks like an Evil Brit.
  • Gray-and-Gray Morality: Neither the Zooks or the Yooks are shown to be any worst or better than each other and both of them are shown to be equally willing to go to war for the simple fact that they eat their butter toast differently. By the end, both races are willing to blow each other up over it.
  • Heroic Dog: Daniel, the nation's first gun-toting spaniel who is trained to carry and apparently also fire the Kickapoo Kid.
  • Humongous Mecha: The Utterly Sputter, which looks pretty much exactly how you would expect a mecha designed by Dr. Seuss to look. It sprays "blue goo" on the Zooks. Then it turns out the Zooks made one too...
  • Irrational Hatred: The Yooks hate the Zooks for eating their bread butter-side-down, while the Zooks hate the Yooks for eating their bread butter-side-up. In fact, they hate each other so much over this one silly little thing that they end up going to war over it.
  • Lensman Arms Race: The plot, basically. Van Itch breaks the protagonist's initial weapon, leading the Yooks building new weapons while the Zooks build bigger weapons of their own. This culiminates in them each building their own Weapon of Mass Destruction to wipe each other out.
  • A Lizard Named "Liz": There's a spaniel named Daniel.
  • Mad Scientist: The Yooks' Bright Boys dance ballet, measure Grandpa in a very eccentric way, and use a lot of technobabble in their song about the Bitsy Big Boy Boomeroo.
  • Meaningful Name: "Bitsy Big Boy" is clearly a nod to the code names of the two real-life nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki— "Fat Man" and "Little Boy".
  • Mirror Character: Grandpa is a Sociopathic Soldier who is eager to devastate his enemies with weapons of mass destruction because he has been taught that Utopia Justifies the Means. Van Itch arms himself with larger and more destructive weapons for the same reason.
  • Mexican Standoff: The last scene. Grandpa Yook and Van Itch are both ready to drop their bombs and destroy the opposing town, which is no doubt going to kill them as well. Then the story stops.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: The ending leaves open the possibility that, since both sides realize dropping their Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo will doom their own side as well as the other side, they just might choose to put off dropping it indefinitely. And that's about the most optimistic interpretation of the ending.
  • No Ending: Both the animated special and the book just stop during the most chilling moment when both the Yook and Zook are waiting to see who will drop the bomb first. It makes the whole thing much more powerful and allows children to think and make up their own minds about the whole conflict. In his official biography, Geisel stated that he was inspired by "The Lady, or the Tiger?", which also ends without telling the reader the resolution.
  • Ode to Food: Several songs about bread and butter feature in the animated adaptation.
  • One-Man Army: Grandpa seems to be the only combat soldier in the Yook army. The few other personnel are Mildly Military, and spend most of the time playing musical instruments and marching in parades.
  • Orange/Blue Contrast: The Yooks wear blue and the Zooks wear orange. The cover is also mostly orange except for the Yooks' flags which are blue.
  • Putting on the Reich: Van Itch's uniforms are similar to those of Napoleon's army.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The reason for the No Ending. As an allegory for the Cold War, it wasn't clear to anyone at the time whether the "Yooks" or the "Zooks" were going to drop their "Bitsy" or not.
  • Ridiculously Potent Explosive: The Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo is the size of a bean and can be carried by an old man in his hand with no difficulty. It is also advertised by the people who developed it as the mightiest weapon of mass destruction ever made, guaranteed to vaporize the entirety of the enemy side no matter how thorough their defenses.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: As mentioned above, the book is a very straightforward allegory for the Cold War, with the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo being a stand-in for the atomic bomb.
  • Serious Business: The entire conflict is about whether bread should be eaten butter-side up or butter-side down, which is all rather silly.
  • Shout-Out: The war on buttered bread is borrowed from Gulliver's Travels, which revolved around a different battle over breakfast (though in that case, it was which end of the egg to crack, as an allegory for the Catholic-Protestant divide).
  • Shown Their Work: Guns that shoot cherry-stone pits and powerful poo-a-doo powder may sound whimsical, but Dr Seuss was in the army during the last war. He knew that bird excrement is used to make nitrates, and the kernels of cherry stones are an ingredient for the Deadly Gas hydrogen cyanide.
  • Silly Reason for War: The trope's poster boy— a war over bread and butter.
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: The Ralph Bakshi TV adaptation is a Near Identical Adaptation. It follows the art style, story and tone of the book to the letter, but also sandwiches in some new stuff.
  • Sympathetic P.O.V.: Though the message concerns both sides' equally Silly Reason for War, the focus is on the Grandpa Yook who is matched time and time again by his Zook rival and sent slinking back to base. He also comes off as visibly more shaken by their final plan than the Zook counterpart. The very last scene of the animation has the Grandpa Yook visibly hesitating and panicking over who would drop their bomb first, while Van Itch looks smugly and totally unfettered.
  • Take That!: The Yooks' national anthem is a savage parody of two American patriotic songs: Over There, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • Tricked to Death: Grandpa and Van Itch are sent on an obvious suicide mission to drop bombs on the other town, with neither of them considering that the blast will kill them too.
  • Unishment: Every time Grandpa fails to defeat the Zooks, he is rewarded with a promotion and a more powerful weapon.
  • Uncertain Doom: We never find out if anybody drops the bomb.
  • Universe Chronology: A confusing one, as at first it seemed like the events were being told by the Yook in flashback framing to his grandson, but then it somehow started happening in the present where the grandson is present. It sort of justifies itself as it contributes to the ambiguity of the ending whereas if it had been a flashback, it would've been a Foregone Conclusion that neither side dropped the bomb.


Video Example(s):


"We...Will See"

In the final scene of "The Butter Battle Book", just as Grandpa Yook is about to drop his Big-Boy Boomeroo, his rival Van Itch appears holding one as well. The Yook grandson can only ask who will drop theirs first, with his grandpa telling him to "be patient", the story ending with the implication that the Yooks and Zooks will experience total destruction.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (29 votes)

Example of:

Main / NoEnding

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