Newbery Award Acceptance

By Robert C. O'Brien

Given at the meeting of the American Library Association in Chicago, Illinois, on June 26, 1972. The Newbery Medal "for the most distinguished contribution to American Literature for children" was awarded to Robert C. O'Brien for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum). The article below appeared in the Horn Book Magazine, August 1972, pp 343-348.

I am sorry that my doctor will not let me deliver this speech myself, and I am grateful to Jean Karl for agreeing to read it for me, leaving me free to lead the applause at the end.

I am grateful also to the American Library Association for the very great honor its members have given to me and to Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

I am grateful that there is a Newbery Medal, and not just because I won it. After Anne Izard telephoned me to tell me my book had been chosen (as I told her, that was the best phone call I ever got), I went out and found a list of all the Newbery titles over the years. I was familiar with quite a few of them, but my youngest daughter knew them all and had read most of them. Obviously the Newbery Medal works. It gets the books to the children and the children to the books.

Ever since I wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, I have been asked two kinds of questions, one quite sensible, the other quite incredulous. the sensible one is: Why do you write books for children? The incredulous one is: Why, with all the world to choose from, did you have to write about rats?

One of the first critics to review Mrs. Frisby wrote as follows: "When I first got the book, the title bothered me. Who wants to read about rats? They're filthy, thieving, ravenous and cruel. But once beyond that mental block...." Well, once beyond that mental block the critic went on to write one of the most enthusiastic reviews I have ever read. But the question was valid, and I still hear it. If you choose rats as heroes, you're going to turn some people off. So why do it?

Of course, rats are not without precedent in children's books. There is a fine character named Rat in The Wind in the Willows. There is a friendly rat named Melchisedec in A Little Princess (Lippincott). There have been others I could mention. Still, it set me thinking. Why did I choose rats as subjects for a children's story?

I regret to say that if there was ever a precise answer to that question, it is lost. I have searched my memory and my files to try to find out how and when the idea first came to me. My files show that I began writing the book in November, 1967, and that by March 1968, I had finished only two chapters and was debating whether or not to continue. (I was, at the time, also working on another book.) But I have no recollection at all of Mrs. Frisby's initial appearance in my thoughts. I think that may be true of many works of fiction. They are rather like plants. You put a seed under ground. You come back a few days later and find a small green stalk growing. But how often do you actually see the stalk emerge?

I do know some of the thinking and reading I had done before I wrote about Mrs. Frisby, and I know that these must have been connected with her sudden appearance. I had been, and still am, concerned over the seeming tendency of the human race to exterminate itself--as who is not? I have wondered: If we should vanish from the earth, who might survive us? What kind of civilization might follow ours? I had read in a scientific journal that scorpions were good candidates for survival, since they are resistant to radioactivity. I read the same about cockroaches. But I was unable to imagine a cockroach or a scorpion civilization. (I expect Jean Karl is glad to hear that.)

By Coincidence, I had been reading a book by Loren Eiseley called 'The Immense Journey'. There was in it a chapter about prairie dogs. It discussed the evidence paleontologists have found that the prairie dogs' ancestors drove our ancestors, the ancestors of the simian primates, out of the prairies and into the woods. In short, the prairie dogs were, millions of years ago, ahead of us in the race toward dominance. While we were still in the trees, they were building little villages. And prairie dogs, as we know, are not dogs at all, but rodents.

Dr. Eiseley's essay reminded me in turn of another essay--one by Clarence Day called "This Simian World." It was required reading when I was in college. That was a long time ago; but as I recall, it begins by pointing out that many of the things people do--for example, talking a lot and gathering in large groups--are traceable to their simian ancestry. (Monkeys do these things, too.) Then the essay goes on to speculate on what the world would be like if people were descended not from monkeys but from, say, dogs or cats. I remember that Clarence Day thought a cat civilization would be much less gregarious than ours: Cats walk by themselves. Also, a cat culture would be more musical than ours, with a lot of singing.

Still thinking about survival, I began to speculate: Rats are tough, highly adaptable to a changing environment, and enormously prolific. Maybe if people should eliminate one another by means of war or pollution, rats would be the survivors. Or is not the only survivors, perhaps the most intelligent.

What, then, would a rat civilization be like? This, of course, is not precisely what Mrs. Frisby is about. In the book, there is no war, and the human race has not been exterminated. but it was this kind of speculation that led to the birth of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

I suppose it's a rather grim idea to serve as background for a children's book. But once I got it started, the rats took charge, and they turned out to be much saner and pleasanter than we are.

To the much more general question--Why do I write books for children?--the honest answer is not very enlightening. I write them because a story idea pops up in my mind; and that really is the way it feels, to me at least. And since I am in the writing business, when I get a story idea I write it down before I forget it. It isn't always for children, of course, but those are the stories I most like to write, because children like a straight- forward, honest plot--the way God meant plots to be--with a beginning, a middle, and an end: a problem, an attempt to solve it, and at the end a success or a failure.

I would prefer to rephrase the question. Why is it good to write books for children? The answer to that is easy: because it is good for children to read books.

I have a friend, a scientist, who has a collection of seeds. He has arranged them as a display, and they fill a box the size of a suitcase. They range from seeds as small as a pea to seeds as big as a coconut. They are in various shapes--round, flat, pod- like; some are streamlined like boats; some have appendages for catching winds or currents. all have two things in common: They are waterproof, and they float. My friend's hobby is the study of the spread of plants by water--across the oceans from island to island and from continent to continent.

Now I am going to skirt a very hot argument that has been going on recently between two scholars in Cambridge, Massachusetts, about what the human mind is, and what its relationship is to the brain. And as I skirt it, you may think that I am going to suggest that minds, like tiny submicroscopic seeds, come floating in from far-off space and take root in our brains--that they are more than human. Well, I've thought about that, and I don't think I believe it. But I do believe that the analogy is usable anyway.

A seed washes up on the barren shore of the new island of Surtsey. It germinates, takes root, and grows into a tree, a flower, or a weed; and the island is never the same again. The plant is made of the same carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and other elements that existed there before, but is it more than these. And so the mind is more than the brain, more than the cerebral cortex, nerve tissue, synapses, and electrical impulses. It has a life of its own, and like the plant it needs certain stimuli to make it grow.

In college I took a very elementary course in psychology. The professor who taught it was a behaviorist, and one of the ways he explained consciousness, intelligence, awareness--that is, the using of the mind--went something like this. You approach a door, turn the knob; the door opens; and you walk through. You do this a hundred times, it always works, and your mind remains dormant. It is an unconscious act. But the hundred- and-first time something goes wrong--the door sticks, or is locked, or the knob comes off. At this point, consciousness flickers on; the mind comes to work; intelligence awakens, studies the problem, directs the eye and hand to turn the key; and the door opens. The mind may stay active a few seconds longer--wondering who locked it; then it glimmers and goes out. In other words, the mind comes to life when something doesn't work, or when something new comes up. Consciousness, this psychologist said, is merely the pause, the delay between the attempt and the success.

At this point I disagree with the psychologist--if indeed I understood him correctly. I think the mind is more than a pause, more than a flurry of activity in the brain cells. I think that there is a true dualism here and that the mind continues to exist when it is not being used. I don't know exactly what my mind is, but I am sure that it is more "me" than my brain is, or my hand, or my endocrine system.

I also believe that it is improved and strengthened by being used. Putting it the other way around, it seems obvious that the mind would disappear if it were perpetually unused--rather like a vestigial tail. If all of our needs and desires were easily and instantly met all of the time, we would become mindless. It might take a few generations, but it would happen--precisely because the mind is a real, living entity and not just a momentary manifestation of brain mechanics. It can starve to death--or fly back into space and look for a better planet.

Thus we may be happy that our society is not yet perfect. Still, we must not strive for imperfection; it is contrary to our nature. We cannot go around taking the knobs off doors so they won't open, merely because it would keep our minds alert.

Or can we? Of course we can. That's what books are all about--books of fiction, at least. We make a world, and put people in it, and make things go wrong, all without doing any damage at all to the real world. Then we activate our characters, and they set to work solving the problems we have given them. Readable fiction has to do this. Could Jim Hawkins get along without Long John Silver? Or Tom Sawyer without the murderous Injun Joe, or Frodo without Gollum? Who would want to read about Sara Crewe if her father had not died, if she had just led a happy and protected life as Miss Minchin's star boarder?

Furthermore, the problems in a book can be much more horrendous than any we would willing face in real life, and the solutions can be more ingenious. In fact, the characters are quite capable now and then of coming up with solutions better than those the author had planned; unfortunately, they can also develop unexpectedly new problems of their own. These they toss to the writer to work out.

When a child (or an adult) reads a book, I think his mind is getting pretty much the same kind of exercise it gets when it deals with real-life problems, though perhaps less intensely. It is certainly not turned off or lulled. If you watch a child reading--or better, recall your own reading as a child--how often did you put the book down for a minute and wonder: How is the hero going to get out of this mess? And try to figure out ways, hoping he would turn right at the next corner, because that's the way the bad guys went.

As the mind-seed wonders, it grows. Having put down roots, it opens its leaves and looks around. It learns about love, hate, fear, sadness, courage, kindness. All these things are in the world around it. But all of them come to life in books in a way that is peculiarly suitable for examination, for contemplation, and for evaluation.

Did I mention bad guys? Did I say Long John Silver? Long John is a liar; he is unctuous, greedy, tricky; he is a thief. Then why do we like him better than anybody else in the book? The mind learns that it is not easy to separate good from bad; they become deviously intertwined. From books it learns that not all doors are simply open or shut, and that even rats can become heroes.

And the lovely thing about a book is that when you finish wondering about these things and pick the book up again, the story is still there, right where you left it. You can't do that with movies or television.

Not that I am against movies or television when the programs are reasonably good. There are thousands of children who would never read a book anyway--there always were, long before electronics--and a television program can let them know who Romeo and Juliet were, or at least what it's like to go to the moon. And I don't think the medium weans many real readers away from books.

My own children, who are omnivorous and voracious readers, tend to watch television in spurts which may last an afternoon or two. Then they get tired of it, and I see them back with a book again. They got the reading habit early, and now I think they are hooked for life.

Which, of course, is why it is good to write books for children.