But Robert C. O’Brien Wrote Children’s Books!

Robert Conly/Robert C. O’Brien

While not every person, student, faculty member, friend has phrased it this way, believe me, I’ve been more than aware of the fact that this is what they were thinking. It’s been a consistent barrier for me to overcome – primarily in my efforts to be “entertained” as an intellectual or to have my research taken seriously by elites (or even non-elites). However, the older I get, and the further along I plug away at academic pursuits, the more I realize that this sort of argument is not only coming from a place of “Oh, but kids books aren’t serious material in an adult world,” but also seriously misguided and harmful.

Robert C. O’Brien (real name Robert Conly) was famous for his Newbery Award-Winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh – a book that, despite its opprobrium from over-protective/self-conscious researchers – was one of the first to present ethical questions about materialism and scientific ethics to young audiences. Sadly, some of the instant hatred of the book from scientific circles is due to Secret of NIMH, while other criticism is from audiences that haven’t taken the time to read the book. Hell, if people paid attention to the actual meaning, maybe it would be the marketing and capitalist-driven individuals that would be channeling their ill-will toward the book. However, I digress.

Here’s the reality: I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a child who bathed in the afterglow of what was left of the energy of Silent Spring, the anti-nuclear movement, and the fiery desire for social justice. There were still sparks of that “not-everything-is-happy-in-1950s-land” simmering about, no part due to the teachers who were instilling in us a desire to do better. Of course, in retrospect, I was fortunate enough, despite being a member of an upper-lower class mobile-home childhood, to be privileged enough to attend progressive-minded schools in the Chicago suburbs. We were taught the truths of Native American genocide, the horrors of slavery, and the dangers of polluting our planet and destroying its natural resources. We still knew about hiding under our desk in case of nuclear attack and took it seriously (even if we ALL knew that in a nuclear attack, the best it would do is shield us from debris).

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH talked about the ethics of animal testing, yes, but it other important questions as well. What DOES “intelligence” mean, and does it really make us happier? While technology is great, what is the end purpose — Does it just make things easier (and, by the way, Huxley warned about this sort of thing decades before) – or does it create larger problems in terms of what happens when capitalism makes room for selling technology but not room for those who need jobs in the wake of those “time-saving” gadgets? What is the end game of “keeping up with the Joneses?” What happens when a scientist is willing to go to any measure to protect intellectual property (and what may drive a scientist to do so in a culture that doesn’t reward knowledge for its own sake?)?

Robert Conly, however, was worried about more than the things he gained recognition for in Mrs. Frisby. In 2019, we find ourselves being amused by leaders who suggest that using nuclear weapons might be a good solution for hurricanes, but, all joking side, we also find ourselves living in an era where the “Space Force” or “Space Command” is resurrecting Reagan-era “star wars” ghosts. And no one takes it seriously. Or not seriously enough. Treaties are being thrown aside, new nuclear accidents and tests are being reported, and millions upon millions of dollars are being funneled into new nuclear weapons efforts. Conly’s Z for Zachariah addressed the very real possibility of a nuclear holocaust – leaving one, young, teenage girl to move forward in a world where her first, best hope is a lab worker who has killed his colleague for a radiation-proof suit. A man who is willing to first murder, and then attempt to rape a lone young woman in the aftermath of apocalypse. A man who echoed a disturbing lack of empathy in American culture – the kind seen in the Aug. 18, 1961 Time article “Gun Thy Neighbor,” in which a man said in an interview:

“When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”

I’ve addressed The Silver Crown in a separate blog post, but I will take the time to say now this book addressed the dangerous “brainwashing” that was possible with technology and the horrific consequences of a culture that believed that only quantifiable results of inquiry were worth notice. Conly was never against the scientific method, however, he was against a world in which the quantifiable was prioritized in the face of the qualitative. He constantly asked us, without directly saying it, whether a life dictated by quantifiable measures was one we should strive for. Did Conly preach the supernatural? No. He never did. What he did preach was the heart in the face of the heartless – the human in the face of what would be left in the face of unethical and unchecked analysis.

After all of this, you may ask me: So what do children’s books have to do with this? It’s interesting, now, that we live in a culture where the wondrous Mr. Rogers is being hearkened back to as a guiding spirit in these times. I wonder how many people, who so look forward to the ever-popular Tom Hanks playing the incomparable Rogers, remember that Fred Rogers created an episode in which King Friday called for more guns and fences (links not available, but watch the great Won’t You Be My Neighbor for footage).

Many people do not realize that these important topics were not considered fare for children until caring and concern citizens like Conly and Rogers took it to the young in order to help raise awareness of the perils that would face them in adult life. People have always tended to underestimate the intellect of children. I was just a decade or so after these first tendrils of awareness were sent out to the young, and I personally believe that it was the work of these individuals that made some of us more aware and more determined to help than the generations before us.

Is my generation perfect? No. As I have mentioned earlier, some of my worldview is indebted to the teachers, ELEMENTARY SCHOOL TEACHERS, who didn’t feel that youth was a time to teach the young that the world was “just fine” and that we should just blindly follow those who happen to be in power at the time. My generation is aware of the good and bad that has preceded us, and, I, personally speaking, know that we can’t just scream “BOOMERS” at those who came before us.

I am taking this time, on Labor Day, to thank all of those who questioned authority, worked for the powerless, fought against the powerful, and who reached out to even the “children” to create hope for a better world. We talk about saving the children, and the fates know there are so many children to save right now from the horrors of abuse, being ripped away from their parents, and being left alone. However, we should also think about children’s literature and audio/visual media as ways to “save” children from a future in which they are not equipped to make a better civilization – one with a future with heart and mind.

Robert Conly cared about that. He cared enough to reach out to his own and future generations – both through his newspaper and National Geographic work, and through his fiction. I respect and admire his great work and want more to know about it – and emulate it. Maybe my research doesn’t make for great academic journals or scientific study, but I just happen to think it’s pretty damned important for humanity’s future.



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