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March 30, 1984 - Image 17

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The Michigan Daily, 1984-03-30
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a, I V

I -W w

Doctor 9S
The Butter Battle Book
Br. Dr. Seuss
Random House
42 pp, $6.95

By Larry Dean

ALWAYS GET a funny feeling
whenever I go into a bookstore and
spy the "Children's Books" section.
What exactly are children's books? If I
had published a book as a child, it would
probably fit neater under the heading
"Existential Gobbledigook," as most
prepubescent authorial efforts tend to
Furthermore, when I'm in need of
some reversion back to the cradle, I get
a squinty, suspicious glance from the
clerks when I ask where the children's
books section is - I always feel like
either a shoplifter (with a successful
black-market book operation), a per-
vert, or a dimwit.
Dr. Seuss (a/k/a Theodore Geisel)
has always understood the pent-up
frustrations of kids, no matter what
their age. Like the best of writers, he
speaks about issues that funnel out of
the heart; so whatever the subject mat-
ter, it's given sensitivity, depth, and ar-
tistic quality. If more writers were as
direct and as bountiful as Dr. Seuss,
we'd have less Sidney Sheldons sitting

on their glitzy cardboard thrones at the
top of the bestseller lists.
I can't imagine who couldn't feel for
poor Thidwicke, the Big-Hearted
Moose, whose good-natured inability to
say "no" puts him in the uncomfortable
position of super-host for a hoarde of
unwelcome animals nesting in his hor-
ns? Or who can't hiss and gasp at the
antics of the Grinch who stole Christ-
mas (then alternately feel satisfied at
his pro-Yuletide "conversion" by the
story's end)? Or who couldn't
celebrate the wild anarchy of the Cat in
the Hat?
Since the publication of Dr. Seuss'
first book, And To Think That I Saw It
On Mulberry Street, nearly 50 years ago
in 1937, the face of children's literature
(and literature as a whole) has un-
dergone an aesthetic facelift. Fourty-
two books have been published since
Seuss' first effort, and nearly all of
them have carried some profundity in
terms both spiritual and political. So it
is not surprising that in election year
1984, in honor of the Doctor's 80th birth-
day, he publishes The Butter Battle
Book, perhaps his most adroitly
political book since Horton Hears A
The Butter Battle Book, (co-written
by Geisel's wife), has all the Seuss
trademarks: The competitive Yooks
and Zooks, two nations whose greatest
philosophical difference comes in their
preference for buttering bread, are the
focal point. There are the usual Seuss
landscaping touches of distorted, wiry
trees and sloping hillsides, absurd,
multifunctional machines, and the
lyrical, alliterative rhymes that tell the
On the surface, The Butter Battle
Book is a continuation of tradition;
however, it is a thin surface, with a
powerful and frightening message un-
derneath. In reading it, you feel as if
you are walking on thin ice, looking


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down at the freezing water that you
know will envelope you when the ice
finally cracks. The Butter Battle Book
is, above all, a message book, a
dangerous warning, that barely tries to
veil its tale with the sweetly freaky
Seuss drawings.
Out of a compulsion of conscience,
Geisel volunteered as a correspondent
during the Korean War. He has said in
interviews (as rare as they are - he is
an intensely private man) that the time
he served reporting on the incidents of
that war profoundly heightened his
moral obligation as an artist and made
him even more aware of the state of
seige that our world is constantly in.
Many of his books have dealt, on
various levels, with -war or the im-
minence of it - The King's Stilts, Yer-
tle the Turtle, The Sneeches, The Lorax
- but with The Butter Battle Book, he
has never been more blatant.
The Yooks are folks who live on one
side of a great wall. Properly, they eat
their bread with the butter side up. On
the other side, dwell the Zooks, who
(blasphemy of blasphemies!) eat their
bread with the butter side down! An
elder Yook, who used to work as a bor-
der guard, tells the tale of "a very rude
Zook by the name of VanItch" who, one
day, starts some trouble by
slingshooting the switch that the guard.
patrols with.
Overwhelmed by shame, the guard
returns to his superiors, who tell him to
rest easy - it seems they have some
"Boys in the Back Room" who are
developing a bigger, better slingshot to
combat the Zooks' terrorism.
This ping-ponging of arsenal which
increases in size continues throughout
The Butter Battle Book. . . . One side
comes up with a weapon, the other side
betters or matches it, and so on, until
the Yook scientists develop the ultimate
weapon: The Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo,
which is sure to stop the Zooks once and
for all. As the guard races to face the
Zook, the Yooks file into underground
bomb shelters at the command of their
great Chief Yookeroo.
The book ends on a tentative note.
with the Yooks and Zooks facing off,

one-on-one, atop the great wall, each
with their own Bitsy Big-Boy
Boomeroo, threatening to drop them at
any moment.
While the border guard is the main
focus of the book, Seuss' real
protagonist is the guard's grandson,
who has been narrating the action all
along. With a child's bewilderment, he
observes the absurdity and self-
defeating, genocidal behavior of both
the Yooks and Zooks. "Who's going to
drop it? Will you. . . Or will he. . ? he
asks, to which grandpa answers, "Be
patient. We'll see. We will see...
One can accuse Seuss of morbid
pessimism by using such tentativeness,
but war - and expecially nuclear war
- is a precarious issue. It's no mere
fluke that he colors the Yooks in blue
and the Zooks in orange ... if he wanted
to get any more specific, he would've
added red'and white to the Yooks, and
made his orange Zooks a deep red. But
such vagueness is acceptable,
especially in light of the fact that, in
The Butter Battle Book, "us" and
"them" are only important inasfaras
there needs to be a clearly delineated
line separating two factions, neither of
which seems inherently good or bad,
but rather, stupidly acting out the or-
ders dictated by high officials with
power complexes and generic
Dr. Seuss, more than many other
mainstream writers, continues to be
the voice of a generation, speaking
loudly through his art. The best thing is
that the so-called "generation" he
speaks for is the generation of children,
of which we all were once a part.
In every one of his books, he says we
never need to abandon that part of us
bursting with wonderment and honest
wisdom of children - that is is integral
to our spirits if we allow it-to remain in
our hearts and minds. Moreso than any
other philosophy, this seems to be -the=
Seuss directive, that we never lose that
innocence, even in the ripped face of
holocaust and global annihilation; after
all, what we began we can stop, and The
Butter Battle Book is a stern,-reminder
that we are only as powerless as we
allow ourselves to be.



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fill out an entry form at any of the listed locations in The Michigan Union
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