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Top 100 Children’s Novels #33: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

#33 Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien (1971)
56 points

My Dad was my 5th-grade teacher, and he read this book to our class. When I re-read it in library school I was still affected by the story. I have such fond memories of this book. – Hilary Writt

First book I ever stayed up reading, under the covers, with flashlight… just couldn’t put it down. – Charlotte Burrows

Considering O’Brien only wrote 4 children’s books (all of them wonderful), it’s pretty impressive that I seriously considering two of them for my top ten (the other being The Silver Crown). But Mrs. Frisby was such an integral part of my childhood. The mystery of what happened to Jonathan. The slowly unfolding backstory of the Rats. The lee of the stone. The Disney movie has its charms (even the strange change of name to Brisbee), but one of the things that makes this book so amazing (and different from the film) is that, once you get past the idea of talking animals, it is amazingly grounded in real life: animal testing, childhood sickness, death, etc. – Mark Flowers

All right!  One of my favorite science fiction books out there (or is it fantasy since Mrs. Frisby can talk too?).  You’ve got your rats.  Your lee.  Your stone.  What else do you need?

The plot, according to the publisher, reads, “Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and must not be moved. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma.”

According to Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book, Anita Silvey says of the author that, “He wrote Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH while on staff at National Geographic.  Since the magazine frowned on their writers developing projects for others, Robert Leslie Conly adopted a pseudonym based on his mother’s name and published this novel covertly.”  As a kid, I always wondered why the sequels (Racso and the Rats of NIMH, R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, etc.) were written by a Jane Leslie Conly and not Mr. O’Brien.  It makes a lot more sense once you know it was a pseudonym.  Jane was actually his daughter.  Nice when they keep it in the family like that, eh?

In the end, the man didn’t do that many books.  Just The Silver Crown, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHA Report From Group 17 and Z is for Zachariah.  I’ve read two of those four.  Now I’m mighty curious about The Silver Crown (which gets republished every once in a while) and A Report From Group 17 (which I have NEVER heard of!).

On September 29, 1995, the New York Times reported that Dr. John B. Calhoun, “an ecologist who saw in the bleak effects of overpopulation on rats and mice a model for the future of the human race,” was the inspiration for this book.

British journalist Lucy Mangan is a fan, as it turns out.  In Silvey’s book Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children’s Book she says that after reading a section where Nicodemus speculates about a potential rat society, “I read that when I 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.  And it could all have been so different.  It wasn’t preordained, immutable, or even anything special.  Just ours, developed to serve our needs.  I was just about catatonic with the shock of this revelation, but at this point Darren Ford started throwing Legos at my head – so my immediate mental crisis was averted.  Children should be encouraged to read anything and everything because you never know what they will get out of a book.”

I’ve always sort of wondered what the actual NIMH made of the book’s popularity.  On a lark, I went to their website and searched for “Mrs. Frisby”.  No results.  Now I wonder how many of their hits on their website per day are silly schmucks like myself.

This is one of those cases where the author was so shy he couldn’t give a speech when his book won the 1972 Newbery (beating out Incident At Hawk’s Hill by Allan W. Eckert, The Planet of Junior Brown by Virginia Hamilton, The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. LeGuin, Annie and the Old One by Miska Miles, and The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder).  So he sent his editor to do it instead.

The site Picture Book Report had some wonderful illustrations from artist Julia Sonmi Heglund.  Lots to look at there.  Here is my personal favorite:

And then there are the real covers out there:

*sigh*  Here’s the part where I explain about the movie.  You may wonder why they changed the title of the book to “The Secret of NIMH” and why they changed Mrs. Frisby’s name to Brisbee.  Simple.  The movie is by Don Bluth (An American Tail, etc.) and they didn’t want to get sued by the frisbee corporation.  True story.

I have difficulty processing this one.  At the time I was incensed that they changed so much of the story.  Magical amulets?  Sinking mud?  A DEAD Nicodemus???  But I’ll give Bluth this.  That darn film was one of the most evocative, memorable cinematic experiences of my youth.  Really wore a groove into my brain, it did.  Few children’s films from the 80s outside of Disney could say as much.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. If you’d asked for a Top 20 this one definitely would have made my list. It might be time to give it a re-read, now that I think about it!

  2. My husband and I did our first dance at our wedding to “Flying Dreams” from SECRET OF NIMH.

  3. I adored THE SILVER CROWN back in the day. I’ll have to look for the reprint to add it to my collection.


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