I was thinking back to the books I read as a child, remembering my all time favorites, and I realized I had never blogged about one that I must have read a dozen times.
MRS FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH was released in 1971 and the author died two years later. Two subsequent books were published by his daughter to make it a trilogy, but those books never garnered the same interest (and I didn’t read them myself).
I hadn’t remembered that this was a Newbery Winner (and winner of many other awards), I simply remembered it as mysterious, suspenseful, and a bit ingenious.
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.
What is not mentioned here is that their winter home is located where the farmer will be doing his plowing, so yes, certain death if they don’t move. The mystery that follows uncovers the secret relationships, and a secret life, that Mrs. Frisby’s husband had with the NIMH lab rats.
I’ve always wondered about this author, where he got his inspiration and what his background was, and it turns out he was a noted journalist for National Geographic Magazine and didn’t start writing children’s literature until he was 45 years old. Just a side-note for those of us who began late in the field. Yay us.
In general, books featuring animal protagonists are geared for middle grade readers and below. Sure there are exceptions, like May Sarton’s Fur Person (or if you consider werewolves to be animals). The quintessential “talking animal” book, I think, is WATERSHIP DOWN, and there are some comparisons here, as well as a dash of Flowers for Algernon. RATS OF NIMH, however, can be enjoyed by a slightly younger audience, is less graphic than WD, and a much quicker read.
It’s interesting that the protagonist is a widowed mouse, not something that would generally pique my interest, but this book is definitely a standout in the genre, and has plot enough to keep young readers interested. The more savvy reader (which I thought I was back when I was 10) will pick up on some of the clues early. Mrs. Frisby and her family can read? They can use medicine? These skills might not sound odd in a “talking animal” book, but the story is set up as more of a realistic one, with some grown-up concerns, as much as scientifically “smartened” rats who know about things like electricity can be considered “realistic.”
To this day I still shiver when I think of the scene where Mrs. Frisby must go inside the farmhouse to put sleeping powder in the cat bowl.
BTW – while I was looking up the age-level for this book, I came across a site called COMMON SENSE MEDIA where the site, parents, and kids rate the age-appropriate level for books, movies, games, etc. (Not surprising, the kids tend to rate the age-appropriateness a year or two younger than their parents. HUNGER GAMES, for instance, was rated appropriate for 13 by parents and 11 by kids).
RATS OF NIMH was rated appropriate for 9 year olds by parents and CSM and 8 year olds by the kids themselves.
For links to more of today’s MIDDLE GRADE MONDAY roundup, CLICK HERE.