A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
JANUARY 11:

  • Happy birthday Mary Rodgers (Freaky Friday) and Ann Tompert (Grandfathers Tang’s Story).
  • Moving the moo juice. Milk is first delivered in bottles in 1878. Read The Milk Makers by Gail Gibbons.
  • In 1922 insulin is used for the first time to treat diabetes in a human patient. Read The Truth About Stacey by Ann M. Martin.
  • It’s Step in a Puddle and Splash Your Friends Day, but only if you live in an ice- and snowless place. Read Splish, Splash by Sarah Weeks, Splash by Ann Jonas, and The Problem with Puddles by Kate Feiffer.

Today marks the birthday of one of the most reclusive children’s book authors of the 20th century. He was not so, however, because of his personality or because he did not want to engage with children. Robert Leslie Conly was born in Brooklyn in 1918; he studied English at the University of Rochester. Working for magazines his entire life, he wrote for Newsweek before joining the staff of National Geographic.

But in the late 1960s, Conly wrote three books for children. His work arrangement with National Geographic, however, forbid him from publishing with any other company. So he did what many authors have done before, he printed his books under a pseudonym—Robert C. O’Brien, based on his mother’s name. He also made no appearances on behalf of his books, to protect his true identity. His second book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, combines talking-animal fantasy with science fiction. When dear Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse, learns that her own home may soon be destroyed by a plow, she attempts to move her sick son to safety. As a last resort, she consults the rats that live under the rosebush. These super intelligent laboratory rodents had been fed mind-enhancing drugs. One of them, Nicodemus, narrates how he and the other rats, part of an experiment in the National Institute of Mental Health, learned to read and finally escape to form a brave new rat world. “By teaching us how to read, they taught us how to get away.” This story works both as adventure but also as an exploration of what constitutes intelligence and community.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH often lingers in the mind of its readers. British journalist Lucy Mangan read the book when she was nine, and “it rocked my world. Everything I took for granted only existed because it was built or organized by us, because we were here first. But it could have been so different.” (Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book.)

When Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH won the Newbery Medal in 1972, O’Brien faced a real dilemma. As part of winning the award, he was expected to appear at the annual ALA conference and give a speech. In the end, he sent his editor Jean Karl with his comments and remained anonymous until his death in 1973. Then his wife and daughter Jane finished his last book, Z for Zachariah.; only after he died did his readers learn his true identity.

I always think Robert C. O’Brien should be the patron saint of shy children’s book authors and illustrators. Without book tours, media interviews, talking to children, or any form of personal marketing, O’Brien gained his following simply through writing one of the great fantasy/science fiction stories of the modern era.

So happy birthday Robert O’Brien. I wish I could have met you; but I feel as if you are my friend every time I reread Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Here’s a passage from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH:

We were approaching the lighted square of the opening when the roar began. The blast of air came like a sudden whistling gale; it took my breath and flattened my ears against my head, and I closed my eyes instinctively. I was still in the rear, and when I opened my eyes again I saw one of the mice sliding past me, clawing uselessly with his small nails at the smooth metal beneath him. Another followed him, and still another, as one by one they were blown backward into the dark maze of tunnels we had just left. I braced myself in the corner of the shaft and grabbed at one as he slid by. It was the white mouse. I caught him by one leg, pulled him around behind me and held on.
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Originally posted January 11, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Adventure, Animals, Award Winning, Mice, Newbery, Survival
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COMMENTS

  1. Barbara Somervill says:

    The valiant Mrs. Frisbee! I read this book to my children many years ago, and I am delighted to see it has not been lost among the thousands of newer chapter books published since. You really have to love a mother with such courage.

  2. G.Perry says:

    I first learned of this book by reading the books listed in Anita’s 100 Best Books for Children book.

    BTW:

    Anita’s book should be in the hands of all parents. I’ve placed it in a number of those hands. She has sent me to special places I never dreamed existed, and I am a wondrously changed reader, and writer because of her. My book seller friends and librarians are well acquainted with my regard for her.

    So then.. at first, I thought Mrs. Firsby and the Rats of NIMH would probably be a good read having won the Newbery, but the title gave me the impression it was a strange work. I love science, but I was oddly not enthused to begin reading it. What a misjudgment! Once I began reading, I quickly changed my mind. It ‘s a sensational book. I couldn’t put it down.

    This is the kind of book that makes me think the only thing I would like better about it, is if I had written it. This is a special work you won’t forget.

    Of the children’s books I have started collecting for my own library. Conly’s work is one that I will own for life, like most of the books Anita recommends.

  3. What a fascinating story. Poor Robert Conly, unable to even accept an award for his work. I guess the real award, though, is having written a wonderful book that is still very popular today.

  4. Deb Tyo says:

    Anita – How did I not know of your wonderful website/resource until recently? Thanks to my Twitter network, I now do. My sixth graders are enjoying coming into class every day to read the day’s entry that is projected onto the big screen in the room. We begin class every day with you. Thank you!

    *Mrs. Frisby is a favorite of mine. I have read that book many times in my early teaching career. Farmer Fitzgibbon…Mr. Ages…Timothy…Martin…Teresa…Cynthia…Nicodemus…Justin…Brutus…I am a sucker for Racso and the Rats of NIMH by Robert’s daughter as well.

  5. Anita says:

    Deb: You have no idea how happy your post makes me. Thank you for sharing the web site with your students. Anita

  6. Sarah Tuttle says:

    This was one of my absolute favorite books growing up… it still is! I vividly recall so many scenes from this novel, from Jeremy’s detrimental obsession with shiny objects, to Mrs. Frisby’s acts of courage, to the fantastic innovations of the rats and their friends. Thank you so much for reminding me of it! I’ll have to re-read it soon.

  7. Andrew Creamer says:

    I am so happy to find this book among the almanac’s collection! I had recently come upon your wonderful post on Redwall, another rodentia classic, and walking home after dinner had an urge to visit this site again and seek this one out.

    Like anothe reader above, I too am a science lover and this was the first book I chose to reread as an adult and was amazed its plot’s layered significance for young people. The story, in addition to being a great adventure, confronts ethical issues like organismal intelligence, and human responsibilities to and relationships with the organisms and natural world; ethology (animal behavior) has always fascinated me and I am sure the roots of that interest grew from these pages. I think O’Brien’s brilliance is reflected in the fact that this work engages and instills in children a respect for these issues while scholars like EO Wilson and Frans de Waal I’ve been reading lately are still laboring to figure out ways to instill this same respect in adults. They could learn a lot from O’Brien.

    However, Anita, the reason I have been moved to post here is because I’m absolutely reeling with excitement because your post has once again deepened my appreciation of a children’s book. When you highlighted O’Brien’s line: “By teaching us how to read, they taught us how to get away,” I saw at its heart the book is about the beauty and burden of knowledge. It is such a beautiful and powerful line that evokes the spirit of Frederick Douglass’ Narrative and his realization of the misery of his captivity and how education was the only key to his emancipation. After reading your post I went again to my copy of Douglass and reread these famous lines: “As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted would follow my learning to read had already come, to torment and sting my soul to unutterable anguish. As I writhed under it, I would at times feel that learning to read had been a curse rather than a blessing. It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, but to no ladder upon which to get out.” Indeed, parents and teachers could have young readers follow this theme and find the same revelation in Richard Wright’s biographic story ‘Library Card” where he beautifully describes finding his own dignity and freedom within the knowledge gleaned from the pages of books: “In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.”

    Anita, you have done it again! I visited the site hoping to nostalgically reconnect with my love of animals inspired by a classic and end up leaving with a new respect for humanity. Bravo!

  8. Annie Norton says:

    Your website is a treasure. As a retired school librarian I find myself wishing that I could be back in my library using your site daily to inspire all those children that I was so fortunate to encounter. Thank you, Anita!

  9. Wow, I seem to have missed this review last time around!

    It sounds like everything a great children’s book should be (especially a read aloud book!)

    It is is now on my to buy list… thanks Anita!

    Read Aloud Dad

  10. Anita says:

    ReadAloudDad: Yes, you will enjoy this one; glad I could introduce it to you.

  11. Happy birthday to the Almanac and may it have MANY more.

  12. Shutta Crum says:

    Anita–I just want to say how much I enjoy your posts. Each morning I get up and am delighted to find you reminding me of another good book . . . Thank you, S.

  13. Thanks Anita,
    I discovered this book when my kids were young at it has been one of my favorites. I haven’t read it in a while so now I am thinking I will need to find a copy to read again. Thanks for all your inspiring posts!
    Amy

  14. Beverly says:

    This brings back memories of my childhood best friend recommending this book to me. I read it even though I didn’t like animal stories, and she was right. It’s a wonderful story. Thanks for reminding me.

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