Monday, May 21, 2012

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971)

     I remember the first – and to that point, only – time I read Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971).  It was well after Don Bluth's animated adaptation, The Secret of NIMH (1982), at least as how time is seen to a child.  To my knowledge, I was the last of my friends to actually read the book; I distinctly remember asking Joel Tysiak for the title of the book so that I didn't end up reading something nobody else had.  I can't explain why that last part was important because I still don't know.
      As a child, I don't know if I got beyond the simple narrative of the story.  It certainly was more tame than the movie.  No magic.  There isn't some sinister force working against the good rats.  It certainly didn't seem all that heroic.  The best thing going for it – it seemed – was that it had talking animals. 
     Giving it another pass as an adult, I was struck by O'Brien's economy of language.  He doesn't draw this tale out to preposterous lengths, choosing instead to keep the story continuously moving forward with only the necessary descriptive adjectives and adverbs.  He certainly challenges the vocabulary of the average 10 year old with it (I don't know the target audience, but it feels like it is pre-tween), but not in an aggressive or impolite manner.  Indeed, I can imagine children gleaning most of the meaning from context and happily turning to the (online) dictionary for any words beyond them.
     It has at its core an interesting concept for a children's book.  It is about the everyday heroics of parenting made manifest in the quest to keep a child safe.  The good relationship the late Jonathan Frisby built with the Rats (and how well he was regarded by other various creatures) allow for Mrs. Frisby to seek out allies and do right for her children.  She cannot do it alone, but she is not so obstinate as to even try to forgo seeking help.  She is also a good enough soul to offer help to others when she is in position to do as much.
     In an animal world where most of those she encounters are smarter than she is, Mrs. Frisby isn't rejected or looked down upon.  She is different, but she is still valued.  Largely treated as an equal by the Rats (who know she is not), she becomes a keeper of their history for their time on the Fitzgibbon farm and the informant who keeps them from being exterminated.  That O'Brien could do all of this with a gentle yet engaging tone, one that has certainly made many a young reader strive to find out what comes next without fretting about the lack of control the mouse has in a world of Rats, men, owls, and Dragon (the cat). 
     Mrs. Frisby is the ultimate mother-as-hero, but she is presented also as how a child would be among adults.  Her actions have merit.  She matters.  O'Brien makes it happen through the story, not as some tagged on lines to reassure the little ones that she is like them and they like her. 
     I certainly don't read much in the way of books aimed a children.  Hell, until recently, I could be said to not be doing much in the way of reading.  But I glad I gave this book another look.  It is a great example of how to write – and do so exceptionally well – for children.

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