Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

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Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Mrs frisby and the rats of nimh.jpg
First edition cover with Bernstein artwork
AuthorRobert C. O'Brien
IllustratorZena Bernstein
SeriesRats of NIMH[1]
GenreScience fiction, Children, Fantasy novel
Published1971 Atheneum Books[2]
Media typePrint
ISBN0-689-86220-2 (second Aladdin paperback edition, 1999)
LC ClassPZ10.3 O19 Mi[2]
Followed byRacso and the Rats of NIMH 

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a 1971 children's book by Robert C. O'Brien, with illustrations by Zena Bernstein. The winner of the 1972 Newbery Medal, the story was adapted for the film as The Secret of NIMH (1982).

The novel relates the plight of a widowed field mouse, Mrs. Frisby, who seeks the aid of a group of former laboratory rats in rescuing her home from destruction by a farmer's plow, saving her son from pneumonia, and of the history of the rats' escape from the laboratory and development of a literate and technological society.

The work was inspired by the research of John B. Calhoun on mouse and rat population dynamics at the National Institute of Mental Health from the 1940s to the 1960s.[3][4][5]

Plot summary[edit]

Mrs. Frisby is the head of a family of field mice. Her son Timothy is ill with pneumonia just as the farmer begins preparation for spring plowing in the garden where the family lives. Normally she would move her family to their summer home, but Timothy would not survive the trip. Frisby obtains medicine from Mr. Ages, a friend of her late husband, Jonathan. On her way home, she saves the life of Jeremy, a young crow, from Dragon, the farmer's cat who killed Jonathan. Jeremy suggests she seek help in moving Timothy from an owl who dwells in the forest. Jeremy flies Frisby to the owl's tree, but the owl says he cannot help until he finds out about Jonathan. He suggests that Frisby seek help from the rats who live in a rosebush on the farm.

Frisby discovers that the rats have a literate and mechanized society. They have technology such as elevators, have tapped the electricity grid to provide lighting and heating, and have acquired other human skills, such as storing food for the winter. Their leader, Nicodemus, tells Frisby of the rats' capture by scientists working for a laboratory located at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH for short) and the subsequent experiments that the humans performed on the rats, which increased the rats' intelligence to the point of being able to read, write and operate complicated machines, as well as enhancing their longevity and strength. This increased intelligence and strength allowed them to escape from NIMH and migrate to their present location. Jonathan and Ages were the only two survivors of a group of eight mice who had been part of the experiments at NIMH and made the rats' escape possible. Out of their respect and unending gratitude for Jonathan, the rats agree to move Frisby's house to a location safe from the plow. Nicodemus also tells Frisby about their decision to abandon their lifestyle of dependence on humans, which some rats regard as theft, and live independently. One rat, Jenner, disagreed vehemently with it and left with a group of followers at some point before Frisby's arrival.

To move the Frisby home, the rats have to drug Dragon, as it is too dangerous to work in the open with him wandering nearby. However, Ages has broken his leg and is unable to put the drug into Dragon's bowl. Since the rats are too big to fit into the hole in the wall to enter the farmer's house, Frisby volunteers to go. Unfortunately, she is caught by the farmer's son, Billy, who puts her in a cage. While captured, Frisby overhears the farmer and his family discussing an incident at a nearby hardware store in which a group of rats was electrocuted after seemingly attempting to steal a small motor. This has attracted the attention of a group of men who have offered to exterminate the rats on the farmer's land free of charge for him. At night, the rat Justin comes to save Frisby and manages to get her out of the cage. Frisby warns Justin of what she learned while captured; they assume that the rats at the hardware store were Jenner's accomplices and that the group of men were from NIMH and are looking for them specifically.

The successful house move allows the mouse family to remain so that Timothy has time to recover before moving to their summer home. Although the rats have not yet had time to evacuate the farm, they manage to destroy their underground rooms and create the illusion that they are just regular rats by placing rubbish in the remaining rooms. As the others move, ten rats stay behind so the exterminators would not think the rat hole has been abandoned. When the exterminators fill the rat hole with poisonous gas, eight of the ten rats manage to escape, while the remaining two die in the hole.

Once Timothy recovers, Frisby and her family move to their summer home as Frisby tells her children the full story of their father and the rats.


In a retrospective essay about the Newbery Medal-winning books from 1966 to 1975, children's author John Rowe Townsend wrote, "It seems to me that the fact that all the animals talk and behave intelligently from the beginning of the story detracts from the spectacular development of the laboratory rats... Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is a pleasing book, but I find it mildly frustrating; it might have been something more than it is."[6]

In 2012 it was ranked number 33 on a list of the top 100 children's novels published by School Library Journal.[7]

Related works[edit]

After his death, O'Brien's daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, wrote two other novels based on the rats of NIMH. Racso and the Rats of NIMH tells the story of a city rat who runs away to join the new colony, befriending Timothy, while saving the colony from a flood along the way. In R-T, Margaret, and the Rats of NIMH, the rats rescue two lost human children who in turn help to save the colony before winter.


1982 version[edit]

In 1982, the animated film The Secret of NIMH was released, directed by Don Bluth. The film adds a mystical element completely absent from the novel, with Nicodemus portrayed as a wise, bearded old wizard with magic powers and an enchanted amulet, rather than an equal of the other rats. The character of Jenner is made a villain who is still present with the rats, rather than having left them before the story begins. The crow Jeremy has much greater prominence as comic relief in the film than he has in the book. Additionally, the Frisby family name was changed to "Brisby" to avoid trademark infringement with the Frisbee.[8]


In July 2009, Paramount Pictures set Neil Burger to write the script and Cary Granat to produce the film based on the book.[9]

On March 4, 2015, MGM, which had released the 1982 film, acquired the rights to the book to adapt it into a live-action/animated film. Michael Berg was set to adapt it, while Daniel Bobker and Ehren Kruger would produce.[10]

On April 10, 2019, it was announced that the Russo brothers will be executive producers of the remake.[11]

On September 8, 2021, it was announced that a television series based on the books was in development at Fox as an event series.[12]


  1. ^ Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 2016-02-16.
  2. ^ a b "Mrs. Frisby and the rats of Nimh". LC Online Catalog. Library of Congress ( Retrieved 2016-02-16.
  3. ^ Fountain, Henry, "J. B. Calhoun, 78, Researcher On Effects of Overpopulation", New York Times, September 29, 1995.
  4. ^ Rovner, Sandy, "Rats! The Real Secret of NIMH", Washington Post, July 21, 1982. Retrieved 2016-09-21.
  5. ^ Giaimo, Cara, "The Doomed Mouse Utopia That Inspired the 'Rats of NIMH'",, September 14, 2016. Retrieved 2016-09-21.
  6. ^ Townsend, John Rowe (1975). "A Decade of Newbery Books in Perspective". In Kingman, Lee (ed.). Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1966-1975. Boston: The Horn Book, Incorporated. pp. 148-149. ISBN 0-87675-003-X.
  7. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 7, 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". A Fuse #8 Production. Blog. School Library Journal (
  8. ^ Cawley, John (October 1991). "The Secret of N.I.M.H.". The Animated Films of Don Bluth. Image Pub of New York. ISBN 0-685-50334-8.
  9. ^ O., Courtney (July 28, 2009). "Paramount Set for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH". movieweb. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
  10. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (March 4, 2015). "MGM Options Mrs. Frisby & The Rats Of Nimh, Sets Ice Age's Michael Berg To Hatch Family Franchise". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
  11. ^ Goldberg, Matt (April 10, 2019). "Russo Brothers to Oversee Remakes of MGM Classics, Including 'The Thomas Crown Affair'". Collider.
  12. ^ White, Peter (September 8, 2021). "Animated Series Based On Robert C. O'Brien's 'NIMH' In Works At Fox As Network Steps Up Adult Cartoon Drive". Deadline Hollywood.

External links[edit]

Preceded by Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by
Preceded by Mark Twain Award
Succeeded by
Preceded by Joint winner of the
William Allen White Children's Book Award
with The Headless Cupid

Succeeded by