What you are about to read is a review of a children’s book which had been banned from the shelves of the U.S. libraries during Cold War years. It opens with these peaceful panoramic lines:
On the last day of summer
Ten hours before fall…
….My grandfather took me
Out to the Wall.
For a while he stood silent
Then finally he said,
With a very sad shake
Of his very old head,
“As you know, on this side of the Wall
We are Yooks.
On the other side of the Wall
Live the Zooks”
Thus, The Butter Battle Book, written by the well known author, Dr. Seuss invites the young reader to the world of Yooks and Zooks. The colorful illustrations of the book show from the first two pages that Yooks and Zooks are creatures quite alike in appearance with the only difference that Yooks dress in blue while Zooks are dressed in orange. Hence one cannot grasp at the beginning why a wall stands between them. Yet, the following words of the grandfather introduce to the reader another “important” difference without delay.
Then my grandfather said
“It’s high time that you knew
Of the terrible, horrible thing that Zooks do
In every Zook house and in every Zook town
Every Zook eats his bread
With the butter side down!”
“But we Yooks, as you know,
when we breakfast or sup,
spread our bread,” Grandpa said,
“with the butter side up
That’s the right, honest way!”
Grandpa gritted his teeth.
“So you can’t trust a Zook who spreads bread underneath!
Now, I see you smile at the “horrible” crime Zooks commit but don’t dismiss it as a funny little story. Rather try to remember how your own parents, your teachers, or even books you read shaped the way you looked at others. How much of this acquired knowledge and experience caused prejudice, fear, and hostility? Or if you please, take a greater challenge and ponder on how you interact today with people that are different from you. Do you erect walls or do you build bridges?
As you reflect on yourself and your life consider how the grandfather Yook delivers an important warning to his grandchild.
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!
In those days, of course
the Wall wasn’t so high
and I could look any Zook
square in the eye
If he dared to come close
I could give him a twitch
With my tough-tufted
Snick Berry Switch
Isn’t it interesting that the difference between Yooks and Zooks instead of becoming a reason for curious attraction toward each other became a pretext for hostility and suspicion? Then again, this is no novelty to us, is it? When fear and hostility join hand, the clash is sure to come.
For the Yooks the clash began when one day a Zook named Van Itch slingshot the Grandfather’s “Tough-Tufted Prickly Snick-Berry Switch.” The Yooks then developed a machine with three slingshots interlinked, called a “Triple-Sling Jigger.” This gun worked once (Van Itch got scared and ran off), but the Zooks counterattacked with their own creation: The “Jigger-Rock Snatchem,” a machine with three nets to fling the rocks fired from the Triple-Sling Jigger back at the Yooks’ side “just as fast as we catch ‘em.”
Page by page the conflict between the two sides escalates and leads to a long arms race for bigger and better weapons to outdo the other, which unsurprisingly brings the Yooks and Zooks on the scary threshold of mutual destruction.
The Butter Battle Book was written during the Cold War era, and many critics think that the book reflects the concerns of the time, especially the perceived possibility that all life on earth could be destroyed in a nuclear war. The book’s apparent position regarding the arms race could be one of the reasons why The Butter Battle Book was once removed from the shelves of public libraries during the Cold War. Another reason could have been educators’ worries about the inappropriateness of introducing the idea of annihilation to young children.
The Butter Battle Book has also been seen as an enjoyable satirical work, with its depiction of a deadly war based on a senseless conflict over something as trivial as a breakfast food. The book’s delightful illustrations and its tongue twisting rhymes make the book fun to read.
Let’s go back to the book because meanwhile, both the Yooks and the Zooks have come to the end of their race. Both sides have developed the same equally powerful destructive bomb: “the bitsy big boy boomeroo.” On the last page of the book grandfather and Van Itch stand still about to drop the bomb and we hear the grandchild’s fearful cry:
“Granpa!” I shouted “Be careful! Oh Gee!
Who’s going to drop it?
Will you…? Will he…?”
“Be patient,” said Granpa. “We’ll see.”
“We will see…”
You may feel unsatisfied with the inconclusive ending, yet some literary critics deem it perfect for provoking discussion on how Zooks and Yooks might develop alternative ways to solve their problems. In fact, this entire book could be an excellent manual for peace studies educators to incorporate conflict resolution on both small and large scales.
On the other hand a National Review article published in July 27, 1984 (shortly after the book came out in print) draws attention to the idea that the inconclusive ending of the book could do damage to the cause Seuss is professing. The article claims that: “By ending inconclusively, with neither side having fired a serious shot and with each side wary of the nuclear weapons of the other, Seuss reminds us that nuclear weapons have kept the peace for nearly forty years now.” According to this article children may as well conclude that the surest way to achieve peace is to remain strong albeit strong at times might translate into inventing and possessing weapons of mass destruction.
Parental or teacher guidance during the reading of this book could be of great help in this case. Thought provoking questions can be addressed such as: Can the non-existence of war be considered real peace? Is a cold war the most peace that can be achieved?
Because history seems to repeat itself The Butter Battle Book and its message are far from obsolete even today, two decades later. As we hear with dread news of wars and ongoing nuclear armaments, as the map of the world is marked with more “hot spots,” we get the gut feeling that maybe we are living in the land of Yooks and Zooks. We feel that it is imperative to promote peace and prevent the infamous prediction of the so called clash of civilizations.
If we, people of this world, should wage a war why not wage one to eradicate poverty, ignorance and hostility? If we should take up arms can’t they be sound education, tolerance, love, and mutual understanding? With the situation as it is, it seems like we don’t possess the luxury to lay back and say: “We’ll see…. We will see…”
It brings hope to see that many people think likewise and have already rolled up their sleeves for the noble cause of peace making. The opportunities to get involved in this noble cause for peace are limitless starting from nonprofit organizations promoting tolerance and peacemaking to small groups that act against prejudice and discrimination. If you feel you are too insignificant to make an impact, then here is something simple to do; read The Butter Battle Book with a child and talk about all the beauties that come with peace.
Mirkena Ozer pursues creative writing at University of Georgia, Atlanta.
References and notes