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The Butter Battle Book

by Dr. Seuss


Just how far will the Yooks and the Zooks go to defend their style of bread and butter consumption?

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, when the grandfather and his Zook rival VanItch come to an ultimate standoff over how far their mounting aggressions will go.

Read aloud video by AHEV Library

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

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 develops and threatens to use progressively larger weapons in response to the threats and weapons development of their rivals. Finally, after continued escalation in both sides’ actions, grandpa and VanItch stand opposed each other, both prepared to deliver the terrible destructive force of the “Big-Boy Boomeroo”, a 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 actually describe any violence or killing. However, such a potentially difficult conversation can be meaningful. The very difficult topic of child soldiers can be a powerful conversation for many children as they are confronted with the reality of living conditions that children in other parts of the world have experienced. 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 intend to discuss it directly. Although discussions of this book and the concepts of war and violence can be facilitated without addressing death, you should be prepared as a facilitator 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 any child’s difficult emotions because of the discussion. You might encourage students to approach you or another adult they can trust to discuss their emotions.

What is War Really Like?

Although many children might have been exposed to images of war in the news and in popular media, they may not have confronted the serious and difficult topics of legal state-sanctioned violence, destruction, and killing that constitutes war. Further, portrayals of war in media, both in news and entertainment, are often filtered through stereotypes that suggest that war is quintessentially immoral in all contexts. Indeed, violence is shown as 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 simultaneously being the worst possible course 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 to create long-lasting ideas and values that might not be challenged by direct experience, especially by a Western audience of children who live in relatively stable conditions, sheltered from direct experience of war. Such a discussion could allow individuals greater context as they make decisions of whether or not to support or oppose war.

Violence, War and the Implications

Questions from this set aim to draw out some of the issues and misconceptions that may arise around the concept of war and challenge children’s attitudes towards the appropriateness of violence, however they might 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. 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 agree on good and bad reasons for war, then the discussion at hand might transition well into the “Responsibility of a Soldier” set 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 the 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 differences, point some out to them and ask them if they think these differences are important. 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 contextualize situations for the children, encouraging them to develop a sense of the concept ‘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 with their students.

The Responsibility and Role of a Soldier

The responsibility of a soldier might be difficult some younger children to grasp. However, the discussion could be fruitful for older children. This discussion ultimately aims to encourage children to consider who is actually responsible for 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 general notion of responsibility and how it is understood in our world. While violence is condoned for soldiers, the same actions might be condemned in the world outside of war. This leads to a discussion of what actions are appropriate or inappropriate for soldiers in war situations.

An underlying theme of these questions is the notion of personal responsibility. When must the individual make a choice that might be unpopular with people in positions of authority? An important topic of discussion that could arise from these questions is 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). 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 arrises 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 development levels, 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, this discussion can be very powerful for children that can grasp these concepts (and perhaps also difficult for you, if you are the authority figure who will soon have your 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 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 it okay for you to fight back against them?
  3. When VanItch shot the slingshot and broke Grandpa’s Snick-Berry Switch, would it give Grandpa the right 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” means. Ask them if they can give an example. Ensure they understand what it means to take responsibility for one’s actions vs. the behavior of responsibility.
  2. Because Grandpa is doing what the Chief Zookeroo orders him to do, is he responsible for his own actions?
  3. When Grandpa threatens to twitch the Yooks with the Snick-Berry Switch, 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. If some of the Yooks got hurt by Grandpa when he covered them, would Grandpa have been responsible?
  6. 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 other’s home. If either do drop it, they will destroy the homeland of the other.

  1. If the Chief Zookeroo tells Grandpa to drop 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 homes are 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 doesn’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 leaders by not doing what they are told to do?
  7. When are people leaders by not doing something that in the past said they would do.

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Nathan Treloar. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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