books, children's fiction, kids, mortimer, munsch, psychology, reading
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?
I read Mortimer as a sneaky little bugger who is getting the jump on everyone in his family. So his “yes yes yes!” is very emphatic and accompanied by exaggerated head-nodding. His singing is at full volume, and it doesn’t stop until he has everybody in such a state that it’s a full-scale brawl in the living room.
I never thought about it before – that’s just how it sounds to me. Interesting.
I’m in between you and Hannah. (Never considered PH’s interpretation, but I’ll bet his reading is the most entertaining…) Mortimer’s getting the jump on everyone, for sure — probably, as you note, because as one of 18 kids, he’s craving a little one-on-one, no matter how it comes. Me, I mostly get annoyed at his parents. You’d think after 18 kids they’d be more canny, instead of being so thoroughly duped by the little dude, and reinforcing the behaviour that annoys them (and everyone else) so much.
And so, in my own version of over-thinking. I rarely read Mortimer. It annoys me too damned much. Mwah-ha.
I would like to know why it is Mortimer’s bed time and not any one of the 17 brothers and sisters’, some of which seem younger than him?
Maybe they’re tired of listening to him yell all day long?
Or maybe he woke them all up
Both equally possible.
I don’t know this story. I love it that you’ve both thought about it so carefully. I also like to puzzle out my children’s story books, and here is a precis of one that is currently bewildering me. It’s called Hen’s Cake. The first part has a quite familiar moral patterning: it’s Hen’s birthday and she wants to have a cake. Billy the Bulldog and the Squeak of a Mouse both think this is a great idea, but when Hen asks for their help with various stages of making it they’re too busy. However, when it’s ready they do want to eat it. “I’ll eat it myself”, says Hen. This is where it gets weird. The cake doesn’t want to be eaten and it gets up and runs off. In this part of the story it is hard not to be on the side of the cake. Various characters join in to chase the cake until it comes to a river, where a wily old crocodile offers to help the cake across in his boat and then encourages it to take a good look at his teeth. The crocodile goes to bite down on the unsuspecting cake, but the lit candles burn his mouth and he spits it out again. The cake goes flying through the air and lands right next to Hen. And she cuts it all up and they eat it. (Everybody gets some except the crocodile.)
It’s a jolly little story, but try as I may I just don’t get it. It feels like it should have a lesson to teach, but what? It was Hen’s cake and she could do what she liked with it? Chasing is ok but trickery is wicked? Don’t identify too closely with a cake because it can only end in tears?
Bizarre! It sounds like a weird compound of two children’s folk tales – the tale of the Little Red Hen, who wants to make bread but can’t get anyone to help her, and the Gingerbread Man, who runs off once he is baked and is tricked by a wiley fox. But why compound the story with a cake of all things?
That’s a really illuminating comment. I didn’t know the Little Red Hen story (though there are lots of versions of the not-helping sequence), but I should have thought of the Gingerbread Man. It helps to clarify the peculiar compound nature of the story and its shift of viewpoint. It’s still very odd, though.
It must be admitted that there are some pretty lame children’s books out there. This particular one came to me from a colleague who had been given a pile of Irish children’s books to judge for an award. Almost all of them were rather poor – Hen’s Cake is actually my favourite of the bunch.