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The Butter Battle Book

By Dr. Seuss, Random House


The Yooks believe firmly that bread should only ever be eaten with the butter side up while the Zooks believe just as strongly that bread should only ever be eaten with the butter side down. A grandfather gives an account to his grandson of how the two societies segregated themselves by increasingly threatening means until the present day has come when the grandfather and his Zook rival VanItch come to an ultimate standoff over how far their mounting aggressions will go.

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Nathan Treloar

The Butter Battle Book is an allegory for the nuclear arms race and the state of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that occurred during the Cold War. This story thus lends itself to a discussion with children about the concept of war itself, the moral issues related to war and the outcomes of retaliatory acts. An arms race develops between the Yooks and Zooks as each side develop and threatens to use progressively larger weapons in response to the threats and weapons development of their rivals. Finally, after continued escalation in the actions of both sides grandpa and VanItch stand opposed each other, both prepared to deliver the terrible destructive force of the "Big-Boy Boomeroo", an obvious metaphor for weapons of mass destruction.

Cautionary Note

The Butter Battle Book portrays a state of war and near-war escalations between the Yooks and Zooks. The discussion of war can bring out images of violence, killing and death, even though the story does not describe any violence or killing. However, such a potentially difficult conversation can be significantly meaningful. The very difficult topic child soldiers can be a powerfully meaningful conversation for many children as they are confronted with a reality of the living conditions of children in other parts of the world that they could personally identify with. Should you choose to carry on a philosophical discussion of The Butter Battle Book with a group of children it is important that you prepare yourself for the difficult topic of war even if you do not intentionally intend to discuss the topic. Although discussions of this book and the concepts of war and violence can be facilitated without addressing death, as a facilitator you should be prepared to address this topic if it arises in the conversation. Also, a facilitator should be sensitive to the fact that some of the children may have parents or other members of the family who are in the military, or alternatively, may have had very personal experiences with war and its effects (i.e. refugees from war-torn countries). This could be uncomfortable for the child if they encounter difficult topics within the discussion. Regardless, a facilitator should be aware of these potentially difficult issues and cultivate sensitivity to the difficult emotions any child might be experiencing because of the discussion. You might encourage students to approach you or another adult they can trust to discuss the emotions they are experiencing.

What is War Really Like?

Although any child you may seek to have a discussion with will likely have been exposed to many images of war in the news and in popular media they may not have been confronted with the serious and difficult topics of the legal state sanctioned violence, destructing and killing that constitutes war. Further, the portrayal of war in the media, in both news and entertainment, are often filtered through very stereotyped attitudes towards war. War is also frequently stereotyped as being quintessentially immoral in all contexts portraying violence being wholly immoral in any context or situation. The complex middle ground of why war, potentially the worst of all human activities, can sometimes be condoned or even considered necessary while also being the worst possible courses of action is a concept that many adults do not consider let alone children. Any conversation about war with an audience otherwise naïve to such complex and difficult issues has the potential of creating long last ideas and values that might not be challenged by direct experience (at least not in a Western audience of children that live in conditions of being relatively sheltered from the direct experience of war) but yet could potentially make future decisions that affect the discussion of whether or not to support or oppose war.

Violence, War and the Implications

These issues are merely a small piece of what a child’s perspective on war could represent, speaking nothing of exhaustive effects of war around the world. Questions from the group on Violence War and the Implications aim to draw out some of the issues, and misconceptions that may arise around the concept of war and challenge children to try and engage their attitudes towards the appropriateness of violence however they feel about the topic. By asking children very specifically about what they think are good and bad reasons for going to war children can expose themselves to at least the differences of opinions that may exist with the other children around them. Further, if the children cannot come to a consensus on when war is appropriate it can provide a lesson to them about the reality of how controversial war is. If the children cannot come to an agreement on good and bad reasons for war then the discussion at hand would segway well into the Responsibility of a Soldier section of questions.

When is War Appropriate?

Encourage the children to discuss their ideas about when retaliation is okay and when it is not. See if any of the children can point out their differences between Dr.Seuss' various silly weapons and their inherent aggressive vs. retaliatory natures such as the Triple-Sling Jigger and the Jigger-Rock Snatchem. If they do not pick up on the difference point it out to them and ask them if they think it is an important difference. The questions from this section aim to build upon the notions of when war is right or wrong and then challenge the notions developed by the children with examples from the book. These questions aim to present contextual situations for the children to consider in their discussions so that they might be able to develop a sense for the concept of a ‘Just War’. The Just War Theory website is a good resource for anyone attempting to learn more about the concept of a ‘Just War” and seeking to expand discussion of the topic within their students.

The Responsibility and Role of a Soldier

The responsibility of a soldier would likely be a potentially difficult topic for some younger children to grasp. However, if you are feeling brave, a discussion of the topic could prove to be a powerful one for some older audiences. This discussion ultimately aims to encourage children to consider who is actually responsible for the acts of war and whether they feel any individual person should be held accountable for their actions in times of war. The discussion of a soldier’s responsibilities for his or her actions in war draws out the entire notion of responsibility and how it is understood in our world. The fact that violence is condoned and encouraged in soldiers' actions while the same actions would be severely punished outside in most other roles lends itself to a discussion of what are appropriate and inappropriate actions for a soldier and why. An underlying theme of these questions is the notion of personal responsibility and when it is necessary for the individual to make a choice such that it might be unpopular with those people with positions of authority in the world. An important topic of discussion that could come out of these questions is the issue of whether or not to hold someone accountable for their crimes if they were forced to commit them. Child soldiers are an obvious example of soldiers who’ve been forced to fight against their will. A discussion of this topic would be a good precursor to discussions of guilt, and why an individual may not be considered guilty of a crime if they did not have any intent to commit it.

Leadership and Leadership in the Face of Adversity

In their article Leadership Lessons from The Butter Battle Book William B. Locander and David L. Luechauer use the story of The Butter Battle Book to describe a moral about leadership, and warn against the potentials of what they describe as situations of escalation as understood from a business/leadership perspective. The goal of the associated question sets is to reflect Locander and Luechauer’s idea that a bad idea can escalate into a trap of the wrong series of actions (the perils The Butter Battle Book describes) and true leadership is required to break free of the poor course of action. Poor courses of action can be set either by outside influence, such as the leadership of others, or by establishing a course oneself in the past. The moral is, of course, that true leadership comes when people do what is right, even, and especially, when it is most difficult to do. These questions also overlap with a foundation of anti-establishment ideology that could suggest the basic idea of questioning authority to children. Different audiences will be at different levels of development which can directly correspond to how they can cope with the concept that doing what is right does not come from an adult or person of authority, but could come from somewhere else entirely. However, if the youth discuss this with can grasp these concepts this discussion can be very powerful for them (and also very difficult for you if you are the authority figure who will soon have their authority questioned more frequently).

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

What is War Really Like?

  1. What is war?
  2. Where have you seen war?
  3. Do movies or television shows about war show what war is really like?
  4. What is war really like?
  5. Why do wars happen?
  6. Are there any good things about war? What are they?
  7. Are there any bad things about war? What are they?

Violence, War and the Implications

  1. Ask the children if they thought that the Yooks and Zooks were at battle. Ask them to show you in the book when they thought that the Yooks and Zooks went from not fighting to fighting.
  2. Does anyone know what the the Yooks and the Zooks were fighting about in the story?
  3. Is that a good reason to be fighting?
  4. What does it mean when people are going to war?
  5. When is it good to go into war?
  6. When is it bad to go into war?
  7. Are there times when it is okay to start a war against someone else?
  8. Are some ways of fighting okay while other ways of fighting are not?

When is War Appropriate?

  1. At the end of the book Grandpa and VanItch are ready to drop Big-Boy Bommeroos on each other's homes. One of the Big-Boy Boomeroos will destroy everything that is not safely underground. Should VanItch drop a Big-Boy Boomeroo on the Zooks if Grandpa drops one on the Yooks even though it won't bring back any of Yooks' homes?
  2. If someone has started a war against you is okay for you to fight back against them?
  3. When VanItch shot the sling shot and broke Grandpa's Snick-Berry Switch, would it have right for Grandpa to go to war against VanItch?

The Responsibility and Role of a Soldier

Grandpa is a member of the Zook-Watching Border Patrol. As a member of the Zook-Watching Border Patrol he takes his orders from the Chief Zookeroo.

  1. Ask the children if they know what "responsibility" meant. Ask them if they can give an example. Ensure they understand what it means to take responsibility for one's actions vs. the behaviour of responsibility.
  2. Because Grandpa is doing what the Cheif Zookeroo orders him to, is he responsible for his own actions?
  3. When Grandpa threatens to twitch the Yooks with the Snick-Berry Swtich, would it be Grandpa’s fault if one of the Yooks got hurt or killed?
  4. Was it wrong for VanItch to destroy Snick-Berry Switch?
  5. When Grandpa crossed over wall to cover the Zook in Blue Goo he stopped because VanItch had an Utterly Sputter as well and he said that he would cover the Yooks with Blue Goo if Grandpa did so to the Zooks?
  6. If some of the Yooks got hurt by Grandpa when he covered them would Grandpa have been responsible?
  7. If Grandpa dropped the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo and destroyed all of the Yooks' homes, would Grandpa have been responsible?


  1. What is leadership?
  2. Who are some leaders?
  3. Who were the leaders in The Butter Battle?
  4. Why were they leaders?
  5. What were the things they did that made them leaders? (Can you point it out in the book?)

Leadership in the Face of Adversity

When the book ends, Grandpa and VanItch are both ready to drop a Big-Boy Boomeroo on each others home. If either do drop it, they will destroy the home land of the other.

  1. When the Chief Zookeroo tell Grandpa drops the Big-Boy Boomeroo on the homes of the Zooks, and then VanItch drops the Big-Boo Boomeroo on the homes of the Yooks, and then everybody's home is destroyed, is it right for Grandpa to drop the Big-Boy Boomeroo?
  2. Would Grandpa be a leader if he drops the Big-Boy Boomeroo?
  3. If Grandpa doesn't do what the Chief Yookeroo tells him to, would Grandpa be doing what is right?
  4. If Grandpa dosen't drop the Big-Boy Boomeroo, is Grandpa showing leadership?
  5. Can people ever show leadership by not doing what they are told to do?
  6. When are people being leaders by not doing what they are told to do?
  7. When are people being leaders by not doing something that in the past said they would do.

This book module deals with ethics. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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