Written by Robert C. O'Brien
Illustrated by Zena Bernstein
An Aladdin Paperback, Simon & Schuster, 1975; 233 pages
First published 1971; 1972 Newbery Medal Winner
Robert C. O'Brien's charming fantasy tale, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH clearly deserved the Newbery Medal it won in 1972. It's been on my need-to-read list for ages, but it took this year's reading challenges to nudge me into finally getting around to it.
The book tells the story of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse who must move her family to their summer quarters to avoid certain death at the hands of Farmer Fitzgibbon and his tractor/plow. But when her youngest child Timothy comes down with pneumonia and can't be moved, she fortunately discovers the extraordinarily learned rats of NIMH who devise a brilliant but dangerous solution to her problem.
The book is really made up of two tales that ultimately come together – Mrs. Frisby's dilemma and the saga of the rats who have near-human intelligence and a literate, mechanized society. They have electricity which they use to run sophisticated machinery, including elevators. They store food for the winter. They have the ability to read and have a large collection of books. And because of the research conducted on them before they made their escape from the laboratories of NIMH, they have greatly extended lifespans – in fact, no one really knows how long they might live.
But the rats' amazing way of life has obliged them to rely heavily on human society. That's risky, and many of the group see it as stealing. So they've decided to abandon their present lifestyle and return to a more independent existence – a sort of self-sufficient back-to-nature movement which isn't popular with everyone in the colony. Several members have already left the group and their leaving has attracted the attention of the human population. The account of the rats' efforts to avoid detection, and at the same time help save Mrs. Frisby's home and family, is real edge-of-your-seat storytelling.
I absolutely loved this book! I can see why it's on so many lists of beloved childhood books. I loved the fact that although it's a fantasy about cute furry animals (and a few cute, feathery birds), it never deteriorates into nursery language or "talks down" to its audience. It's a book that adults can enjoy just as easily as younger readers can. I unreservedly recommend it to everyone – it's a wonderful read. Oh, and the two story lines make it a very economical book as well – it's almost like getting two books for the price of one!
Reading Challenges: 20 in 2009, 2009 TBR (Lite), Book Awards II, Once Upon a Time III, Read Your Own Books (RYOB), Spring Reading Thing, What An Animal!