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“Mom, I really do prefer the book!”

1972 Newbery Medal Winner

(Spoiler warning: If you haven’t already read this book but expect to someday, don’t read this post!)

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Ethan and I stayed up waaaaaay past his bedtime last night so we could finish reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (not the first time I’ve bent bedtime rules to finish a fantastic read) by Robert C. O’Brien. I’d been waiting for quite some time to share it with him, but he kept choosing other books. Once I finally convinced him to let me start reading, it wasn’t long until he was as hooked as I knew he would be. Yet again, a childhood favorite proved itself a timeless classic. Such a beautifully written book!

At the end, when Mrs. Frisby was telling her children the whole story, Ethan starting protesting.

Ethan: “But Mommy! Wait! What about Justin? I have to know if he was one of the two rats who didn’t make it! Did you skip a section?”

Me: “Nothing skipped, dude. Sometimes… sometimes you just have to be okay with not knowing.”

Ethan: “That’s not fair! I have to know! The author didn’t tell us the whole story!”

Me: “Well, hold on a sec, here. The author did tell us the whole story he intended to tell. Don’t forget that this is Mrs. Frisby’s story, and her story does not include knowing who those two rats were, or even whether Nicodemus and the other rats made it to Thorn Valley.”

As much as I wanted to comfort him and assure him that Justin made it out, I couldn’t, and I think it is better that way. The ambiguity surrounding the identities of the two rats–as well as the identities of the six or seven rats found dead at the store–makes for a more compelling, poignant, and thought-provoking read. The masterfully written ending does not give us perfectly wrapped packages of resolution. We are, instead, left to our own conclusions, feeling all at once happy, mournful, and full of questions.

Ethan: “Mommy, PLEASE see if there is a sequel. There has to be a sequel. I need to know what happened and a sequel would tell it.”

Me: “Sometimes, buddy, you have to be content with the mystery. It allows you to let your imagination fill in the blanks differently each time you think about it.”

Ethan, yawning: “Oh, fine. But I’m not happy about it.”

In spite of making the case for mystery, I did a little Wikipedia search after tucking him in. Apparently there are two sequels, written by Jane Leslie Conly, O’Brien’s daughter. According to the Wikipedia entry about the first sequel, Rasco and the Rats of NIMH, “Conly wrote her sequel long after O’Brien’s death in 1973, so even though Conly’s book attempts to answer many of the open-ended questions posed by the original, it is still Conly’s work and not O’Brien’s.”

I realize Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH might be seen by some as “just” a children’s book, but it is one of those books that had a profound effect on me and contributed to my love of and respect for well-written prose. I don’t want to muddy that up–for me OR for my kids–with these sequels. I don’t necessarily want to have answers to those “open-ended questions.” It is suspected that the movie adaptation (The Secret of NIMH) was a major influence on how Conly filled in the blanks that were so deliberately left behind by her father. This does not sit well with me. Maybe I’m too much of a purist.

Interestingly enough, I don’t take issue with Ethan watching the movie…now. We have a goal in our house to always read the book before its movie adaptation, and we’ve often discussed how and why a movie version can be different from the book on which it was based. Since we’re having a lazy day at home today (nothing scheduled, no school tomorrow), we’re having a bit of a movie marathon. Taking a chance that Miranda and Henry won’t remember the movie by the time it is their turn to read the book, I added The Secret of NIMH to our marathon queue. Barely past the opening credits, I had to pause.

Ethan: “Wait, what? What the…? What’s with all the magic and stuff? That’s not in the book!”

Me: “Uh, well, see… sometimes the people who adapt a book into a movie don’t have enough faith that the original story will be enough to satisfy their audience so they feel they need to add things.”

Ethan: “I mean, I guess I don’t totally mind the magic and stuff, but do the movie-makers think their audience doesn’t have a good enough imagination or something?”

Me: “Ummm… I… I… don’t think I can answer that.”

Miranda: “Can we please play the movie now, please?”

Later, as the ending credits rolled, Ethan had a declaration.

“I’m REALLY glad we read the book first. The movie was good and all, but it skipped all sorts of things and made other things up. The book is definitely WAY better!”

That’s my boy!


  1. Pobba says:

    These are the lessons that stick with children. He is learning to discriminate, to make value judgments based on an aesthetic. Good going, Mom.

  2. Kerry says:

    Another great post, Abi! I love the way you write. And think!

  3. Ethan sounds like my daughter who is 10 y.o. I am always running after sequels. 🙂

  4. Rosemary says:

    Hi Abi,
    Ethan might be interested to know that even grown-ups want the loose ends of a story all tied up nicely.

    (Just ask Rosie’s editor.)