Robert C. O'Brien by Peter D. Sieruta

By Peter D. Sieruta

Source: Peter D. Sieruta. "Robert C. O'Brien". Silvey's Children's Books and Their Creators.

AMERICAN AUTHOR, 1918-1973. During his brief career as a novelist, Robert C. O'Brien earned great aclaim but remained an enigma. What little personal information he released to the public was often incomplete or confusing. At the time of his greatest professional triumph, O'Brien did not deliver his own Newbery Medal acceptance speech but asked that his editor speak in his place. Perhaps one reason behind these mysteries was that, under his real name, Robert Leslie Conly, he worked as an editor of National Geographic, a publication that discouraged any outside writing by its staff. Born in Brooklyn, the author was raised in Amityville, New York. After receiving a degree in English from the University of Rochester, he worked as a reporter for Newsweek and several other publications before joining National Geographic in Washington, D.C. O'Brien began writing fiction in the mid-196os.

His first novel, The Silver Crown (1968), is a FANTASY about a girl who finds a magic crown, loses her family, then undertakes an arduous journey. The writing style is promising, with an intense aura of danger and violence, but while the novel contains many exciting scenes, the pace occasionally lags. There are also a few loose ends in the plot. Some later editions include an alternate final chapter, which clears up a key plot question, but the reader may remain unsatisfied.

In Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971), the author Successfully combines an old-fashioned talking-animal story with futuristic scientific speculation. When a widowed field mouse named Mrs. Frisby learns that her home and family may be destroyed by a farmer's plow, she seeks assistance from a group of superintelligent laboratory rats. The core of the book is a lengthy first person account in which Nicodemus relates how he and the other rats were captured by the N I M H labs, treated with steroids, and taught to read, before eventually escaping to form an advanced rat society. Structurally, this long story-within-a-story disrupts the narrative flow of Mrs. Frisby's tale, but the material is fascinating and raises many questions about what constitutes intelligence and civilization. With its interesting plot and fine blend of scientific and nature writing, this unique fantasy would surely have built a large audience eventually, but it was helped immeasurably by winning the Newbery Medal in 1972. The book continues to be extremely popular with young readers and was the basis for an animated feature, The Secret of NimH (1982).

O'Brien published an adult novel in the early 1970s and was working on Z for Zachariah at the time of his death. Completed by his wife and one of his daughters and published in 1975, this young adult novel is a compelling first-person account of a teenage girl surviving alone after a nuclear war and the ominous stranger she meets. All of O'Brien's novels concern characters trying to make the best of a terrible situation, with a threat of danger lurking in the background. In these intriguing, unusal books, the fantastic exists side by side with the mundane. The children in The Silver Crown deal with magic in twentieth-century suburban America. Mrs. Frisby receives assistance from intelligent rats in fighting a common garden plow. Masterfully written, Robert C. O'Brien's novels show a love of nature and raise thought-provoking questions.