This post includes English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien. It’s part of a series that shares English Language Arts and interdisciplinary, differentiated activities for selections from Duke TIP’s 4th-6th Grade Online Book Club for gifted and talented students, which you can re-purpose for your classroom.
Why Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH?
- Diverse cast of animal characters
- A story-within-a-story structure with interconnected drama and conflicts
- Opportunities to help gifted students reflect on problem-solving processes
- Interesting philosophical and ethical issues – including an exploration of animal captivity and testing
- Social-emotional topics like the importance of collaboration and persistence, and facing one’s fears
- Engaging, challenging interdisciplinary connections in aerodynamics, electrical engineering, physics, and geology
- Winner of the Newberry Medal
About the Book
Moving day is coming unexpectedly early this year. Although there is still a crisp chill in the air, the ground has already begun to thaw. All the creatures who have spent the winter living and foraging for leftovers between the furrows of Farmer Fitzgibbon’s vegetable garden know they have to move to the woods before his tractor comes out of the barn. If Mrs. Frisby and her four children don’t leave their cozy, cinder block home at the center of the garden soon, they won’t survive.
As each day gets a little warmer and the ground gets a little softer, Mrs. Frisby grows more desperate. Her youngest son Timothy has become dangerously ill and can’t be moved. He wouldn’t survive the cold, half-day journey. She refuses to leave her helpless son behind, but she doesn’t know how to save him. If only her husband Jonathan were still alive, he’d know just what to do. He might even ask those mysterious rats living under the rosebush for help! Now Mrs. Frisby must find a solution all on her own. Will this tiny, widowed mouse have the wits and courage it takes to visit the most dangerous predator in the neighborhood, venture under the forbidding rosebush at the edge of the lawn, and befriend the most unlikely allies, all while keeping a wary eye out for the Fitzgibbons’ blood-thirsty cat? And if she does, will it be enough to save her family in time?
About the Author
Robert C. O’Brien was very private, so little is known about his life and interests. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918. He was the third of five children and grew up in Amityville, New York. After earning a degree in English from the University of Rochester, he began a long career as a reporter. He worked for National Geographic for over twenty years, which gave him the opportunity to travel around the world. Toward the end of his career, he served as senior assistant editor of the magazine as well. In the meantime, O’Brien married and became a father of four children. O’Brien did not begin writing novels until he was in his late 40s, and, even then, he wrote under a pen name so none of his National Geographic readers would know! O’Brien’s real name was Robert Leslie Conly. Before his untimely death at age fifty-five, he wrote three novels, including Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, which won the prestigious Newbery Award in 1972 and was adapted into the animated film The Secret of NIMH in 1982. O’Brien’s daughter Jane Leslie Conly took up her father’s torch and wrote two sequels to complete the NIMH series. She continued writing novels of her own and has become an award-winning author as well.
Have you taught Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH ?
Sample Reading Journal Prompts and Discussion Questions
- When Mrs. Frisby meets the wise old owl, he is a bit surprised to learn how she came to befriend Jeremy the crow. Then he admits, “That is possible. . . . though unusual. I have heard of such a thing before. We all help one another against the cat” (50). What do you think the owl means by this? What surprises you about this statement and the way the owl behaves toward Mrs. Frisby?
- To help you visualize the problem Mrs. Frisby and the rats are facing, draw a picture of the Frisbys’ cinder block home and the surrounding garden in your journal. Why is the cinder block in such a dangerous position? How must it be moved to be safe from the tractor? If you were designing a plan to move the Frisby’s home, how would you do it?
- Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH has an unusual plot structure. One storyline follows Mrs. Frisby as she attempts to save her home, and Timothy, from Mr. Fitzgibbon’s tractor. This series of events makes up the novel’s frame story. Within that story, though, there is another. When Mrs. Frisby visits the rats under the rosebush, she begins to learn just how they came to live on the Fitzgibbons’ farm. For many chapters—as Nicodemus, Justin, and the other rats tell their story—Mrs. Frisby’s problem is put on hold while the rats tell theirs. In what way(s) does the rats’ story-within-a-story help Mrs. Frisby’s life with her husband, and the rats’ ability to help her, make more sense? Do you think the rats’ story is believable? Why (or why not)?
- One of the most important things the author, Robert C. O’Brien, does with this book is challenge us to think about animal captivity and testing from the animals’ point of view.
- What are some reasons we humans capture animals and keep them for scientific study in zoos, classrooms, and laboratories like the one at NIMH (The National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland)?
- What do you see as the potential benefits of doing so?
- What are the potential downsides?
- In your journal, create a pro/con list to help you weigh the positives and negatives. In what way(s) are you beginning to see this issue differently because of your experience reading Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH?
Interdisciplinary Topics to Explore
- The Aerodynamics of Bird Flight
- an exploration of how birds’ anatomy helps them overcome the pull of gravity
- an investigation of how migratory birds’ flight formations conserve energy
- a review of the ways in which humans have studies and attempted to imitate bird flight throughout history
- The Wonder and Mystery of Caves
- an introduction to how natural caves are formed
- a comparison of various types of caves
- an exploration of what caves can teach us about prehistoric human life, the development of graphic communication, and the Earth’s climate thousands of years ago
- a review of arguments for the importance of caves and their preservation
- Harnessing the Power of Electricity
- a review of the history of humans’ efforts to harness the power of electricity
- an exploration of how power plants generate and distribute electricity
- an introduction to series and parallel circuits
- an investigation of renewal energy options
- The Physics of Simple Machines
- an overview of the six simple machines and how they are used
- an introduction to Rube Goldberg
- examples of kids testing their own Rube Goldberg contraptions
- instructions for students to design their own Rube Goldberg machine