GeekDad Book Review: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

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I’d been meaning to write up a review of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, but with the recent stories about a potential new film version, I figured now’s as good a time as any. Like many folks my age, I remember seeing the movie The Secret of NIMH as a kid, although I must admit I didn’t remember a whole lot about the plot, and since my family didn’t have a copy on VHS, I still haven’t seen the movie in a long, long time. (I do own a copy on DVD now, which my five-year-old watched on the way to Taiwan, but I was busy writing about how entertainment is no longer a shared experience…)

At any rate, I’d found a used copy of Mrs. Frisby, which I read to my wife last year. (We like to read aloud, and we find that children’s literature is usually much better for this than adult fiction or non-fiction. Call it practice for when our kids are old enough to sit through books with no pictures.) Up until this point, neither of us–despite being fans of children’s books–had ever actually read the book. I didn’t even know, until I came across the book, that it had won the Newbery Medal in 1972. But after one read, it was easy to see why.

The plot, which got changed quite a bit in the movie version, deals with Mrs. Frisby’s dilemma: her son Timothy is sick and can’t be moved from their home in Farmer Fitzgibbon’s field, but it’s nearly time for plowing. Through a series of acquaintances and happenstance, she finally meets the mysterious rats of NIMH–that would be the National Institute of Mental Health, not the battery–who turn out to be quite resourceful. (If she’d had Facebook, all of this would have been much simpler, although probably not a very exciting story.)

The writing is excellent, and reminds me a little of Richard Adams’ Watership Down, another favorite of mine, but with a little more anthropomorphism. There’s certainly some suspension of disbelief, but it’s not quite as outlandish as, say, The Wind in the Willows, with animals driving automobiles and living in mansions and interacting with people. It starts off a little slower, setting the scene, but pretty soon it picks up and there’s some action, some mystery, and a pretty sweet payoff at the end. And, of course, there’s just so much more than what could be put into a movie. Nicodemus’ back story in itself could probably be an entire movie.

But now, the all-important question: Will my kids like it?

To answer that, I’ll use this anecdote. During the school year, I help organize a monthly program at our local library, and one of the activities (which I insisted on) is reading books aloud. We split the kids up by age, and we look for age-appropriate books. Little kids, of course, love being read to. The third- and fourth-graders wouldn’t sit still no matter what we read to them. But the fifth- and sixth-graders, who maybe thought they were a little old for “story time,” were totally hooked. Given the choice between playing some games and listening to another chapter of Mrs. Frisby, they chose the book. Even the kids who missed a session were still interested, and one of the kids I know checked it out as soon as school was over so she could read it herself.

There are a few scary bits: Mrs. Frisby meeting the owl, for instance, or encounters with Dragon, the appropriately-named farm cat. My own five-year-old is a pretty anxious one, which means I’ll be saving this for when she’s a bit older. And there are some things that might go over the heads of younger readers (for instance, the explanation about being former lab rats). But even if they miss parts of it, I think most kids would enjoy the adventure and mystery of the story. The book is probably around a fifth-grade reading level, though obviously that depends on your kid.

And for those of you who are scratching your head, saying, “Mrs. Frisby? I thought it was Brisby in the movie!” has this to say:

The lead character’s name was changed from Mrs. Frisby (in the novel) to Mrs. Brisby to avoid legal entanglements from the Wham-O company (makers of the Frisbee). Unfortunately this change came late in the film’s production, long after the actors had recorded their dialog. Because it was not feasible to have every actor using the word “Frisby” in the movie re-record his or her lines, the change from “Frisby” to “Brisby” was actually made by the sound editors, who, by hand, carefully sliced the “br” (taken from other words spoken by the actors) into the “fr” on the magnetic dialog tracks.

Wired: Excellent writing, fantastic plot, engaging characters; read the book before the new movie comes out.

Tired: Okay, so animals can’t actually talk. At least in English. Also, if you really liked the fantasy/magic parts of the movie, you’ll be disappointed that they aren’t here.

Verdict: Do yourself and your kids a favor and check this one out. There’s a reason it won the Newbery, and it makes for excellent out-loud reading.

Related post: A New Secret of NIMH

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