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One of my friends sent us Robert Munsch’s Mortimer as a gift when Owl was born, and it’s one of the only books that he actually listens to, rather than constantly interrupting the narrative by pointing and yelling shrilly, “A TRUCK!!”

PH and I read it differently, though, and it has led to discussions about Mortimer’s motivations.

We can’t really agree on just what Mortimer’s problem is.

For those who don’t know this classic tale, it goes thusly:

Young Mortimer goes upstairs to bed and is warned to be quiet. He responds with “Yes! Yes!” and then proceeds to sing so loudly and joyfully that he drives his family to distraction.

He is visited, in turn, by his irate father, by 17 siblings (Mortimer is actually a Duggar, I guess), and two police men. Each time he is scolded and told to quiet down, he is even more emphatic in his agreement to do so, yet his noise actually gets louder and louder.

Everyone starts arguing with each other about what to do with him and he eventually starts singing softly to himself and then drifts off.

How I See The Story:

As a dog trainer, I see this as a basic story of operant conditioning. Mortimer, as one of 18 children, doesn’t get a lot of attention and he gets so wound-up that he is willing to take even negative attention.

His bedtime antics are rewarded by the constant visits upstairs. Once the attention ceases (everyone gets wrapped up in each other), Mortimer slowly winds down and drifts off. When I read Mortimer to Owl, Mortimer’s “Yes! Yes! Yes!” has a casual tone, like “yeah, yeah, yeah.”

When he winds down at the end, I trail off and fluctuate my pitch, as if he’s a tape recorder that is running out of battery.

Perfect Husband reads it differently.

How PH Sees The Story:

PH sees Mortimer as a child who is sadly afflicted by some kind of mental disorder. He wants to be good but is simply unable to control his deep seated drive to create chaos.

When PH reads Mortimer, his yesses have a frantic note as Mortimer becomes increasingly intimidated by his scolders. Mortimer’s father makes him a little nervous, his siblings’ wrath en masse makes him even more desperate to behave, while the policemen send him into a near-grovel of promises to shut up.

However, no matter how much he tries, he just can’t seem to suppress the devil inside him who simply MUST MAKE NOISE. In the end, when he has wreaked so much havoc that flower pots are flying and the family baby is looking distinctly worried, Mortimer finally finds some kind of satisfaction in his soul.

He sings his song once more, quietly, but this time it has a triumphant note, and then he goes to sleep content.

We are each fascinated by the other’s interpretation. How can such a simple tale be told in such different ways?

So I went online to find out more.

I learned that Mortimer was Munsch’s first book, and that unlike many of Munsch’s characters, he wasn’t drawn from life.

I even listened to Munsch read the work, and his telling ran right down the middle between my telling of it and PH’s.

So we may never know what really makes that little bald kid tick.

But Owl seems to enjoy hearing the story no matter who is reading it, and maybe one day he can read it to us and give us his own interpretation.

I’m looking forward to that. Maybe it’ll give us insight on why our little noise maker won’t go to sleep.

If you read Mortimer to your kids, how do you tell the story?