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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

Gone But Not Forgotten
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
Robert C. O'Brien

When National Geographic journalist Robert Conly got glaucoma at age forty-five and moved closer to work because he could no longer drive, he found he had some extra time. He found a rather original use for that time--he used it to write novels, winning the Newbery Medal for the second one and completing three before his death. After he died at age 55, on the verge of completing his last book, his wife and daughter used his notes to finish the final novel, published (like the others) under his pen name, Robert C. O'Brien. His daughter has gone on to write two more books based on the characters in her father's books, in addition to creating her own body of work. All this from a little extra free time.

O'Brien's first novel, The Silver Crown, is modeled on the classic good-versus-evil fantasy, but it has its own individual approach. Its main characters, Ellen and Otto, overcome multiple challenges in struggling to defeat an evil machine that seeks to control all of humanity. What makes the book more interesting and complex than most novels of this nature, however, is the author's refusal to resort to simple ethical polarities. Nothing is flat or predictable here; even the machine's evil nature is questionable. The prose is accessible to young readers and the topic an inviting one, while the story is filled with action (including kidnapping and brainwashing) that will satisfy just about any kid. This is no simplistic page-turner, however: the book enriches its approach with allusions and symbols (including a wealth of historical and religious references) that add texture without slowing the book's pace, and that will reward more experienced readers--and give other readers a bit more experience.

O'Brien's second novel was the now-classic Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, winner of the Newbery Medal. Youngsters familiar with the popular, more traditionally plotted movie it inspired, The Secret of NIMH, may find some surprises in its source novel. The book too is an engaging tale about a community of intelligent rats and their efforts to save the home of a widowed mouse and her children. Mrs. Frisby, however, is an unflashy and thoughtful novel with, as is usual for O'Brien, some interesting ambiguities. While it's got fast-paced action and quick-reading dialogue (which makes the title a fine choice for reading aloud), there are no easy answers or solidly evil forces. Even the scientists who experiment on the rats are kind and gentle with them, and the heroes have a wonderful mixture of bravery and vulnerability. O'Brien's fiction consistently demonstrates, in kid-accessible ways, that life and people are neither purely good nor bad, but rather shades in between, a philosophy unusual in speculative fiction so engaging for younger readers. Thankfully, his daughter Jane Leslie Conly, who wrote two other novels based on the rats of NIMH (Racso and the Rats of NIMH and R.T., Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH), has this same philosophy, and her novels are great companions to her father's work.

After writing a novel for adults, A Report from Group 17, O'Brien returned to literature for young people, nearly completing Z for Zachariah before his death, which was then finished by his family according to his notes and published posthumously. In some ways a departure from his earlier works, Z for Zachariah, a young adult novel, treats a darker subject matter, nuclear holocaust. This is one of the first postapocalyptic fictions for young people, but it's no mere prototype, and fans of contemporary examples of the genre will find O'Brien's take absorbing as he gives voice to a young girl who survives the disaster. The novel has the traditional appeal of survival and adventure stories, but it too shows that O'Brien thoughtfulness in depicting its heroine's internal struggles and emotions. Ann is, in many ways, a typical teenager, and readers will be able to identify with her reactions and therefore her experiences in a very atypical situation.

Although it's been thirty years since the publication of his last work, O'Brien's books contain the same ability to catch the imagination as their long-lasting contemporary, the higher profile Wrinkle in Time; a reader who loves A Wrinkle in Time is probably ripe for The Silver Crown. Z for Zachariah might suit a Gary Paulsen fan who is ready for something geared for older readers, or readers of futuristic fiction like Stephanie Tolan's Welcome to the Ark. And just about any kid who loves a good story with ups and downs and twists and turns will appreciate Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and its successors.

--Carolyn LaMontagne

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This page was last updated on February 1, 2004.