Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338
Robert C. O'Brien was the pen name of Robert Leslie Conly, born January 11, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York. He attended Williams College but left during his sophomore year. After studying music, he returned to college the following year and in 1940 graduated from the University of Rochester with a degree in English. In 1943 he married Sally McCaslin, and they had four children. From 1944 until his death of a heart attack on March 5, 1973, O'Brien worked in the Washington, D.C. area. Although he worked in the city, he spent much time in the country, and for about ten years lived on a small farm.
O'Brien, whose father was a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, worked as a journalist and editor. In 1941 he was a staff writer at Newsweek magazine; in 1944 he became a reporter for the Washington Times-Herald and later for Pathfinder News magazine. In 1951 he began working for the National Geographic magazine and later became senior assistant editor. As a journalist he wrote under his own name but used O'Brien, which had been his mother's name, for his fiction.
O'Brien wrote fiction only during the last ten years of his life, producing three novels for young people, the last of which, Z for Zachariah, was completed by his wife and daughter from his notes and published posthumously. His novels for young readers focus on serious problems of modern society. For instance, Z for Zachariah is written in diary form and is a post-nuclear war account of a young survivor. In this novel O'Brien develops his concern that the human race has a tendency to exterminate itself.
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, however, is the novel which has received the most critical acclaim, winning many awards: Lewis Carroll Shelf award (1972), runner-up National Book Award (1972), Pacific Northwest Library Association Young Reader's Award (1974), and William Allan White Children's Book Award (1974). It also received the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1972 from the American Library Association. In 1982, MGM/United Artists released The Secret of NIMH, an animated movie based on O'Brien's novel.