Robert C. O'Brien by Sally M. O'Brien

By Sally M. O'Brien

Source: The Horn Book Magazine, August 1972, pp 349-351

There is a sign much in evidence these days which proclaims, "If you aren't nervous, you just don't understand the situation." My impression of Robert C. O'Brien is that he has, since early childhood, "understood the situation"--i.e., he was and is a nervous being. On the other hand, he has--also since childhood--had a formidable set of skills or talents for dealing with that nervousness. First, and probably most important, was a talent for music. He could sing before he could talk; his favorite amusement was the family windup Victrola; and he has had a lifelong preoccupation with music both as a listener and as a performer. If he is not playing the piano himself (or if one of his children is not playing it), he turns on the phonograph or radio. In his house there is always the sound of music--it has been his greatest refuge.

He loved reading and showed an early facility with words, writing rhymed poetry and even a novel about the adventures and exploits of a young boy who traveled around the world.

He had a propensity and talent for dreaming. He could and did regularly create splendid imaginary worlds, with himself in dazzling, heroic roles. While all children do this to some extent, Robert O'Brien's fantasy world was so vivid that he still remembers the place and hour when he (by then a student in high school) made a solemn decision to give it up and to concentrate on living in the real world.

Another great strength was his self-discipline. In late adolescence he regularly arose at 4 o'clock in the morning to study, to practice the piano, to walk on the beach while the rest of the family was asleep. Along with this discipline went a determination and a refusal to compromise almost akin to perversity.

These were not characteristics to make him an endearing, easy- going child. Born a middle child into a literate, sharp-witted, sharp tongued Irish family, he had an extraordinary bad case of "middle-itis." His younger sister, now his good friend, says frankly, "We hated him." His mother, harassed beyond endurance, once threatened to drown him. He was sick a great deal. He despised and feared school and some mornings was literally dragged screaming into the classroom. He was, for a year, a college dropout when such action was cause for disgrace. Still he was not ever drifting. In a hard, uncomfortable-for-those-around-him style he was shaping up; but he was doing it, as he always would, in his own way. His respect for language, his talent for dreaming, and his self- discipline were combining to make him a writer. Writing has been his only profession: Since 1943 he has earned his living writing news stories, articles, poetry, and finally fiction.

His first book, The Silver Crown (Atheneum), was written for children and published in 1968; his second, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Atheneum), won the current Newbery Award; his first adult novel, Report from Group 17 (Atheneum), was published in March of this year. He is now at work on a second adult novel.

In middle age Robert O'Brien is a cultured, fastidious, rather solitary man who like order and quiet, and works by schedule in spite of a busy household. His most long-lasting hobbies, aside from music, have been furniture making (he turns out exquisitely fitted and finished pieces) and growing luxuriant flowers in neatly arranged weed-free beds.

He has been married for twenty-nine years to the same wife; and his children have neither turned on nor dropped out, but have gone cheerfully off to highbrow schools where they developed the expensive habit of staying until they graduated.

In his fiction, though, there is some evidence that Robert C. O'Brien has not entirely outgrown influences of his childhood. One finds in his books a fascination with valleys, with hidden worlds, with new societies; he writes with particular sympathy for and perception of children and children's feelings. And children respond. They write him so many letters--smudged, misspelled, tremendously moving documents. A surprising number begin, "Dear Mr. O'Brien, I too am writing a book." These letters he considers extra sacred. They are, he knows, from the special children, from the dreamers. They are from our future writers.