Reviews - 1981-1991

By Various

Source: Reading Teacher, V. 34, March 1981. p. 638

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
By Robert C. O'Brien, illus by Zena Bernstein
Atheneum, $1.95
ISBN 0-689-70413-5

Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field-mouse, has a sick son who cannot be move to their summer quarters, but her current nest on Mr. Fitzgibbon's farm is in danger from spring plowing. A shrewd owl advises her to seek help from some unusual rats. They have electricity, carpets and a plan to make themselves self- sufficient. How? Because they were ordinary city rats picked up for a laboratory experiment and given injections to alter their genes and improve their learning. They can read and design machines, and they seek to change the centuries-old image of rats. Do they get the chance? By now, any reader should be on the rats' side. A story to read aloud to second graders or to be read independently by believers about nine up. Gr. 3-5.

Source: Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 1983

O'Brien, Robert C.

[much deleted info which you can read in the biography section]

Recipient: American Library Association Newbery Medal, 1972, Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award, 1976. Died 5 March 1973.

[publication list deleted]

Robert C. O'Brien was a serious writer; that is to say, he dealt with important moral themes in some depth. He was, like C.S. Lewes, a notable example of a sophisticated writer who found the flexible conventions of children's fiction a convenient medium for exploring his own ideas.

Only his second novel, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, has achieved wide popularity as well as critical acclaim. At the level of children's animal story it describes the heroic efforts of a mother field mouse to save her invalid child from imminent death from the farmer's plough. In the course of her struggle, she gets involved with a colony of hyper-intelligent rats who have escaped from a research laboratory. These rats are confronting the questions that face industrial man and clearly obsess O'Brien: whether to use technological expertise to create a competitive mechanized society that exploits and eventually destroys its environment or whether to opt for a civilization that respects the individual and natural resources.

These were hackneyed topics among dissident American youth of the early 1970's, but O'Brien's use of talking rats who are testing out the options for themselves provides a fresh new focus; the problems somehow appear clearer and more real in the context of an animal story than they ever could in a conventional "human" novel. O'Brien's inoffensive didacticism is carried easily by a most moving and original narrative.

His earlier novel, The Silver Crown, is again about a civilization, this time our own, threatened by exploitation and destruction. An evil power, oddly derived from the 5th century St. Jerome, is about to infiltrate society first with muggings, race riots, and arson and eventually through the control of everybody's minds.

O'Brien seems to have a firm belief in the notion of Evil as the source of man's troubles. His third children's book, Z for Zachariah, takes us to the stage when our civilization has destroyed itself through a nuclear holocaust; a 16-year old girl survivor records her macabre experiences in the form of a daily diary that reminds one of a French New Wave novel.

O'Brien's output was slender and uneven, but characterized by remarkable inventiveness, dramatic power, and a clear narrative style that enabled complex ideas to be felt as well as understood.

--Aidan Warlow

Source: Masterworks of Children's Literature, Volume 8, 1983 pp. 136-137, 187-190

In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O'Brien, a group of superintelligent laboratory rats comes to the aid of Mrs. Frisby, a field mouse. Here again man is the enemy: Mrs. Frisby must move before her present nest is destroyed by a farmer's plowing. The scientists and technicians whose experiments have produced the rats are working on potentially destructive projects. Mankind's commitment to technological progress without concern for the harm it can do is contrasted with the wisdom of the animals.

* * *

The late Robert C. O'Brien was a serious writer who dealt with complex moral issues in depth. It is a tribute to his skill as an evocative creator of character and background that he was able to produce a serious novel about talking rodents that is not in the least whimsical. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) is primarily about Mrs. Jonathan Frisby, widowed fieldmouse driven to heroic efforts to save her sick child, Timothy. Plowing day is swiftly approaching, and Timothy is not recuperating quickly enough; if he is moved, he will likely die. If they stay, the farmer's plough will destroy their home. Despairing, she tries a last hope: she turns to the strange, reclusive rats who inhabit the rosebush. To her surprise, they agree to help her when they discover she is the widow of Jonathan Frisby, whose disappearance has always been a mystery to her.

Up to this point the book is strictly a talking animal fantasy (though a well-done one), without a hint of science fiction. But then the rats lead Mrs. Frisby into their home, which, to her further surprise, is many times the size she expected, furnished, carpeted, with electric lights and elevators! The rats devise a plan to move her to an area protected from the plowing, and the head rat, Nicodemus, explains to Mrs. Frisby that the rats are escapees from NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health, though that is never explicitly stated in the book), where they were experimental subjects for a drug that greatly enhanced their intelligence. They swiftly learned to read and write, unbeknownst to their keepers. Eventually they escaped through the building's ventilation system, along with two mice, one of whom was Mrs. Frisby's husband Jonathan. They then accumulated bits and pieces of technology and, after numerous adventures, holed up behind the rosebush. However, they were unsatisfied with life as they were currently living it; they felt that as intelligent animals they should be generating their own electricity and growing their own food rather than continuing to live off humans. To that end they have been storing up grain and tools and will soon move far out into the wilderness.

First, however, they will move Mrs. Frisby's house. Unfortunately such a complex operation requires drugging the cat so that it does not patrol the area. Mrs. Frisby volunteers for this job and learns that it was the very operation of trying to slip sleeping powder into the cat's food that led to the death of her husband. She resolves to go ahead anyway; what choice does she have?

While in the kitchen dropping the powder into the cat dish, Mrs. Frisby overhears the humans planning to exterminate the rats in the rosebush. She returns to warn them, and after moving her house, they quickly dismantle their own home and put up a convincing show to satisfy the humans that they are dead. Two of them actually do perish in the escape, but the rest of the rats are free to pursue their goal of a rat civilization.

The most effective passages in the book are those that show the rats acquiring intelligence in the lab, escaping and gradually civilizing themselves. Under normal circumstances, the imposition of this fantastic science fiction plot upon the already extant standard fantasy plot (talking animals) would dim the effectiveness of both and muddy the book. However, the science fiction motif, which is the main fantastic element in the plot, is not introduced until almost halfway through the story, by which time the talking animals have ceased being wondered at by the reader; they are an established fact of the world of the book. There have been no further fantastic developments, and the reader is expecting none; this added recomplication is a complete surprise, and devastatingly effective. Of course, if the passages dealing with the rats' heightened intelligence weren't so fascinating in and of themselves, the reader would probably be annoyed at the violation of the assumed laws already established in the book. But O'Brien is a skilled writer, and he adds his ingredients judiciously; there are no additional violent surprises. In any case, the fantasy and science fiction elements are not mutually contradictory; an effective book about rats with heightened intelligence almost demands that they be able to speak. To O'Brien's credit, he spaced the introduction of the two motifs and achieved a cumulative rather than jarring effect.

An interesting subplot of the book, and apparently a matter of thematic importance to O'Brien, is the rats' debate among themselves over whether to live as they always had, scrounging off humans, or whether to develop a new self-sufficient rat society. One group of rats maintains that it makes no sense to deny their rathood by trying to change their behavior into that of humans. The other, larger group holds that they are no longer rats but a new species, a sort of superrat, and that the interests and activities that ought to concern them are more like those of humans than those of rats. To deny or stifle intelligence and ambition is ultimately to be dissatisfied. The majority of the rats seem to feel that there is no point in not pushing to one's utmost. It is a fascinating debate, and a comment on the nature of ambition for all intelligent creatures.

Also of central concern is the matter of technology. These new superrats are newly confronting the questions that face industrial humanity: whether to use technological expertise to create a competitive mechanized society that exploits and eventually destroys its environment or whether to opt for a civilization that respects individual and natural resources. At first, O'Brien's message is ambivalent; the rats' home is wired for electricity, and technology is after all the means of their intelligence. By the end of the book, however, a renegade protechnology rat faction has, significantly, electrocuted themselves to death trying to move a power motor, and the main rat colony goes off to live in the wilderness with nothing but farming tools and grain.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was only O'Brien's second novel; he evidenced a delicacy of touch and sureness of characterization unusual for one with so little experience. His prose was evocative and not condescending, and his books can be read and enjoyed by adults as well as children. His premature death was a loss to children's literature.

Source: For Reading Out Loud!, 1988, p. 172

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien.
Illustrated by Zena Bernstein. New York: Atheneum
Publishers, 1971. Paperback: Atheneum.

Suggested Listening Level: Grades 4-7

Mrs. Frisby is at her wit's end. The fieldmouse widow and mother has a sick son and needs help in moving him out of the way of spring planting. as a last resort she consults the rats under the rose bush and finds there an unexpectedly sophisticated civilization. It turns out that the rats and Mr. Frisby had been part of an experimental group at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and the series of injections that they got not only enhanced their mental abilities but prolonged their life span.

"By teaching us how to read, they taught us how to get away," explains Nicodemus, leader of the rats of NIMH, to Mrs. Frisby. Now, five years after they escaped from NIMH, the group is working on the Plan, a long-range scheme for survival that won't involve stealing as a way of life.

Mrs. Frisby's own courage and initiative are supplemented by the rats' help, and her problem resolved. The success of the rats' noble experiment is still in doubt, however, when the book ends. Thought-provoking and engrossing, the story is just plausible enough to spark stimulating discussions by fifth-and sixth-grade listeners. This surefire novel is also suitable for a wide age range of listeners because it operates on so many levels, and the twenty-eight chapters combine into approximately fourteen twenty-minute sessions.

Source: Books Kids Will Sit Still For, 1990, p. 330

O'Brien, Robert C. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Illus. by Zena Bernstein. Atheneum, 1971. ISBN 0-689-20651-8

[28 chapters, 233 p.] Brilliant laboratory rats plot their escape from the National Institutes of Mental Health. Lead your readers to the excellent sequel Rasco and the Rats of NIMH written by O'Brien's daughter, Jane Leslie Conly. Read a contrasting treatment of animal laboratories in Ron Roy's realistic The Chimpanzee Kid. FANTASY. MICE. NEWBERY MEDAL. RATS.

Source: Read-Aloud Handbook, Trelease, 1990, P. 315

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien Atheneum, 1971 Gr. 4-6, 232 pages

In this unforgettable fantasy-science fiction tale, we meet a group of rats that has become super-intelligent through a series of laboratory injections. Though it opens with an almost fairy- tale gentleness, this grows into a taunt and frightening realistic tale. Two decades after the publication of this book, fiction grows closer to fact, with genetic engineering; see the December 27, 1982, issue of Newsweek, "The Making of a Mighty Mouse," p. 67; also "Human Immune Defenses are Transplanted in Mice," The New York Times, September 15, 1988, p.1. Sequels: Rasco and the Rats of NIMH and R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, both by Jane L. Conly (Robert C. O'Brien's daughter). Also by the author: The Silver Crown. Related book: The Twenty-One Balloons (n).

Source: Booklist, September 1, 1991, p. 67

O'Brien, Robert C. Illus by Bernstein, Zena. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. 1971. Atheneum, $14.95 (0-689-20651- 8); Macmillan/Aladdin, paper, $3.95 (0-689-71068-2).

Gr 3-6. Mrs. Frisby is a single-parent mouse whose younger son, Timothy, has fallen seriously ill just as the family needs to move before its house is destroyed by a plow. With the help of an owl, she is put in touch with a group of intelligence- enhanced laboratory rats, escapees from the NIMH who find an ingenious way to help her out of her dilemma. A heart- quickening, fancy-catching yarn.