Synopsis: Some extraordinary rats come to the aid of a mouse family in this Newbery Medal Award-winning classic by notable children’s author Robert C. O’Brien.
Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with four small children, confronts a terrible problem. She must move her family to their summer quarters immediately, or face almost certain death. But her youngest son, Timothy, lies ill with pneumonia and does not have the strength to make a journey to a new home. Fortunately, she encounters the rats of NIMH, an extraordinary breed of highly intelligent creatures, who come up with a brilliant solution to her dilemma. And Mrs. Frisby in turn renders them a great service.
For The Writer: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a classic for the following reasons:
One, the book is clearly and plainly written in language, which will not sound dated beyond the decade in which the author wrote it. For more on this subject follow the tags uncluttered language, writing for clarity, and/or vocabulary choice.
Secondly, the story is host to a variety of well-rounded characters, including Mrs. Frisby and her children, Jeremy (a young crow who keeps his word), a somewhat stereotypical wise old owl, Mr. Ages (an older mouse versed in the pharmaceutical benefits of almost everything), Dragon (a predatory cat), and of course, the Rats of NIMH.
But it is for the third reason, and the characteristic I will discuss more at length, that the book succeeds; MF contains key elements for middle grade fiction.
The characters in the story face injury and death around every hay bale and fence post: Mrs. Frisby’s child is sick and could die if he is not moved; There is a cat, who will attack and mercilessly kill birds, mice and rats; there is an owl, whose diet characteristically consists of rats and mice; there is a colony of rats, any one of which could easily harm a mouse; early spring may prompt the landowner, Farmer Fitzgibbon, to plow over his garden, where Mrs. Frisby lives with her children, bringing certain destruction to every creature in the plow’s path; There is a chapter titled ‘Seven Dead Rats’; travelling the countryside by land or air where a single mistake could reap tragic consequences; and of course we have the mysterious NIMH factor, which holds the odour of death when anyone utters its name. The amplitude of demise through disease, slaughter, random acts of nature, and murder, in a book of middle grade fiction should not surprise. Therein is life and if a writer has lived long enough she knows the majority who make their home on planet earth live by a thread. The prospect of imminent death ups the stakes and is one essential factor in middle grade fiction. If you are not persuaded, think back to your favourites. You will find the threat of death or its underling danger in some form.
The second key element exploited in MF is mystery. What happened to Mrs. Frisby’s husband? Who is this great and wise owl? Who are the reclusive and busy rats under the rose-bush and what are they up to? What is NIMH? How will the Fitzgibbons alter the outcome? What role will Jeremy the crow play? Will Mrs. Frisby’s young son survive? The unanswered questions are a veritable manure pile – manure on a farm is a good thing; think compost, fertilizer, new growth – heaped up early in the story.
Urgency is the third ingredient in this meaty classic middle grade sauce. The antagonist must answer the questions noted above in the span of a short week to prevent the first noted element from overwhelming every hope. I will note here that MF is also infused with those auspicious moments, which does not allow our hope be extinguished.
Created thereby is the final key element: suspense. Do you recognize the formula? DEATH is imminent if Mrs. Frisby does not solve critical MYSTERIES with all SPEED, the sum of which equals cannot-put-the-book-down SUSPENSE.
Check this formula against other classics of middle grade fiction (A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, Holes, Charlotte’s Web, Watership Down, The Giver, The Hobbit and so on) and you will find its elements in greater or less proportions. This, of course, does not diminish the contributions to the book of the author’s descriptive pastoral word pictures, his diminutive and charming characters and a writing style which places clarity above linguistic gymnastics, and it would be an interesting study to determine if the latter qualities would make a classic without the former elements.
Writing a book like MF would be easy if it were dependant on the ingredients alone, simple ingredients as in most French cooking which we find at the grocery store, but as anyone who has made the attempt, the result in French cooking is in the process of the experienced cook as much or more as in the ingredients.