This book and movie hit at just the wrong times for me to encounter them as a kid. The book came out to early and looked old fashioned by the time I was the right age to read it and the movie came out after I was too old to want to see it. I did read the book with my daughter a couple years ago and remember liking it but since it’s on our district’s quiz bowl-type reading challenge and I’m taking a team this year I thought I should re-read it.
I also had it on my list of possible S&L Kids books to read but could never decide if it was more Fantasy or more Science Fiction. It’s really both. It’s got the talking animal adventure, kind of a Watership Down for kids thing. It’s also got a kind of Flowers for Algernon SF tale that is essential to the plot.
What I especially love is that the hero of the story is a middle aged mother. How many SF or Fantasy books have the main character–a smart, courageous middle aged mom hero at that–as the main character? I can’t think of any off the top of my head.
I can think of tons of stories with kids out on their own with absent or barely involved parents. How many kids books have a parent as the protagonist and the children are the ones in the background? It’s totally unique as far as I can tell, but it hold up for kids I think. I’ll report back about this when my team gets to it.
Of course, even with a strong female character it’s still a novel of it’s time. I believe it was written in the late 60s. When she goes to the rats it’s pretty much just males she deals with. There is some brief mention of “the wives” and a handful of female characters pass through, but for the most part, other than Mrs. Frisby (who doesn’t even get a first name as far as I can tell) it’s all males making most of the decisions.
The other thing I noticed this time around is how little action takes place on stage as it were. The first part does, what with the cat, the crow and the owl. But once she makes it down the rat hole, it’s all second hand tales told by Ms. Ages and Nicodemus. That’s when we hear the SF tale of the rat intelligence experiments. It’s a captivating tale but the section where they describe learning to read grated. As an educator I knew they might get something out of those lessons, but learning to read wasn’t one of them. Other than that, though, the NIMH parts were great science fiction from the object of the experiment’s perspective.
The ending adds a dash more excitement in a Borrower’s type way and ends happily for everyone. No spoiler there, most talking animal stories do for some reason.
If you like this book, there are sequels but not written by Mr. O’Brian so I don’t know if they’re any good. To me this is more closely aligned with survival stories and there are many great human and animal survival stories for this age group. But sticking with the animal fantasy theme, there was that Redwall series, the Poppy books by Avi, the beautiful Tale of Despereaux, A Nest for Celeste by Henry Cole, Young Fredle by Cybthia Voight, and Richard Peck has some fun adventurous mouse tales out now. Oh, and don’t forget about Kathryn Lasky’s fantasy series about owls which starts with one called The Rescue. They made it into a mediocre film but the students still like the books.