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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 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.


Both book and animated special provides examples of:

  • Alliterative Title: The Butter Battle Book.
  • 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.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • As far as Dr. Seuss books go, this is his darkest children's book. Not only does it deal with 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.
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  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Fantastic Nuke: The "Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo."
  • The Great Politics Mess-Up: The animated special (which, like the book, uses a Berlin Wall expy) aired four days after the real Berlin Wall fell.
  • 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...
  • Lensman Arms Race: The plot, basically.
  • Mexican Standoff: The last scene, leaving it quite ambiguous what will happen next.
  • Mutually Assured Destruction: One 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.
  • Ode to Food: Several songs about bread and butter feature in the animated adaptation.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Silly Reason for War: The trope's poster boy.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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