Robert C. O'Brien

Robert C O'Brien By Sally M. Obrien.
Robert C O'Brien By The Book of Junior A&I
Collected Obituaries

About Robert C. O'Brien by Sally M. O'Brien

There is a sign much in evidence these days which proclaims, 
"If you aren't nervous, you just don't understand the situation."  
My impression of Robert C. O'Brien is that he has, since early 
childhood, "understood the situation"--i.e., he was and is a 
nervous being.  On the other hand, he has--also since 
childhood--had a formidable set of skills or talents for dealing 
with that nervousness.  First, and probably most important, 
was a talent for music.  He could sing before he could talk; his 
favorite amusement was the family windup Victrola; and he has 
had a lifelong preoccupation with music both as a listener and 
as a performer.  If he is not playing the piano himself (or if one 
of his children is not playing it), he turns on the phonograph or 
radio.  In his house there is always the sound of music--it has 
been his greatest refuge. 
He loved reading and showed an early facility with words, 
writing rhymed poetry and even a novel about the adventures 
and exploits of a young boy who traveled around the world. 
He had a propensity and talent for dreaming.  He could and did 
regularly create splendid imaginary worlds, with himself in 
dazzling, heroic roles.  While all children do this to some 
extent, Robert O'Brien's fantasy world was so vivid that he still 
remembers the place and hour when he (by then a student in 
high school) made a solemn decision to give it up and to 
concentrate on living in the real world. 
Another great strength was his self-discipline.  In late 
adolescence he regularly arose at 4 o'clock in the morning to 
study, to practice the piano, to walk on the beach while the rest 
of the family was asleep.  Along with this discipline went a 
determination and a refusal to compromise almost akin to 
These were not characteristics to make him an endearing, easy-
going child.  Born a middle child into a literate, sharp-witted, 
sharp tongued Irish family, he had an extraordinary bad case of 
"middle-itis."  His younger sister, now his good friend, says 
frankly, "We hated him."  His mother, harassed beyond 
endurance, once threatened to drown him.  He was sick a great 
deal.  He despised and feared school and some mornings was 
literally dragged screaming into the classroom.  He was, for a 
year, a college dropout when such action was cause for 
disgrace.  Still he was not ever drifting.  In a hard, 
uncomfortable-for-those-around-him style he was shaping up; 
but he was doing it, as he always would, in his own way.  His 
respect for language, his talent for dreaming, and his self-
discipline were combining to make him a writer.  Writing has 
been his only profession:  Since 1943 he has earned his living 
writing news stories, articles, poetry, and finally fiction. 
His first book, The Silver Crown (Atheneum), was written for 
children and published in 1968; his second, Mrs. Frisby and the 
Rats of NIMH (Atheneum), won the current Newbery Award; 
his first adult novel, Report from Group 17 (Atheneum), was 
published in March of this year.  He is now at work on a 
second adult novel. 
In middle age Robert O'Brien is a cultured, fastidious, rather 
solitary man who like order and quiet, and works by schedule 
in spite of a busy household.  His most long-lasting hobbies, 
aside from music, have been furniture making (he turns out 
exquisitely fitted and finished pieces) and growing luxuriant 
flowers in neatly arranged weed-free beds. 
He has been married for twenty-nine years to the same wife; 
and his children have neither turned on nor dropped out, but 
have gone cheerfully off to highbrow schools where they 
developed the expensive habit of staying until they graduated. 
In his fiction, though, there is some evidence that Robert C. 
O'Brien has not entirely outgrown influences of his childhood.  
One finds in his books a fascination with valleys, with hidden 
worlds, with new societies; he writes with particular sympathy 
for and perception of children and children's feelings.  And 
children respond.  They write him so many letters--smudged, 
misspelled, tremendously moving documents.  A surprising 
number begin, "Dear Mr. O'Brien, I too am writing a book."  
These letters he considers extra sacred.  They are, he knows, 
from the special children, from the dreamers.  They are from 
our future writers. 
From The Horn Book Magazine August 1972, pp 349-351 

Robert c. O'Brien From the Book of Jumior Authors And Illustraitors

January 11, 1918--March 5, 1973 
Author of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, etc. 
Biographical sketch of Robert Leslie Conly, who wrote under 
the name of "Robert C. O'Brien," by Sally M. Conly: 
Robert C. O'Brien was the pseudonym for Robert Leslie Conly 
who was born January 11, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York.  He 
was the third of five children born to Leslie Marsland and 
Agnes O'Brien Conly.  Both parents were well educated.  
Agnes O'Brien came from a well-to-do Irish Catholic family of 
lawyers and doctors in Rochester, New York, and was a 
graduate of Smith College.  Leslie Marsland Conly graduated 
from the University of Rochester and met his wife when both 
were school teachers in Rochester.  By the time Robert was 
born, however, his father had given up teaching for a job as a 
reporter on the New York Herald Tribune.  He was to stay 
with the Tribune for the rest of his life, later becoming manager 
of the Tribune Fresh Air Fund, a charitable organization that 
operated summer camps for poor city children. 
The mother also worked for the Fresh Air Fund as did the 
children when they were old enough to be counselors in the 
camps, and this strong bond with the New York Herald 
Tribune added to the literate, reading-writing atmosphere of 
the home. 
When he was still a baby, the family moved to Amityville, Long 
Island, and Robert grew up there, attending a parochial school 
and, later, Amityville High School.  As a child he was 
precocious and showed musical talent, but he was also sickly 
and fearful.  He hated school and did not get along with his 
brothers and sisters, who considered him selfish and spoiled by 
an overly protective mother; but by the time he reached high 
school he was happier and more successful both in scholarship 
and in human relations.  He was admired particularly for his wit 
and for his musical ability.  He was not good at contact sports 
but he was a fast sprinter on the track team and an excellent 
swimmer.  He was editor of the school paper and showed a 
great facility with words, especially for turning out verse. 
In 1935 he entered Williams College, but the new situation 
brought stress and tensions, and he left college abruptly during 
his sophomore year.  He worked briefly in Albany, New York, 
before drifting back to his family in disgrace--parents then 
being less tolerant of dropping out of college than they are 
now.  It was an unhappy time, later referred to as his 
"breakdown," but in a few months he was feeling better, and he 
decided he really wanted to be a musician. 
Robert had begun taking piano lessons in high school and now 
he resumed them, taking the train from Amityville into New 
York City to study at the Juiliard School of Music and to take 
extension courses at Columbia University.  The following year 
his parents persuaded him to go back to college, this time to 
the University of Rochester where he could continue his music 
at the Eastman School but also get a B.A. in English at the 
In the end, English won out.  Although he always devoted 
much of his leisure time to music, he earned his living and 
made his greatest contribution writing English. 
After graduating from the University of Rochester in 1940, and 
a brief stint in an advertising agency, he went to work for 
Newsweek magazine in New York City.  World War II was 
imminent, and it was an exciting time for journalists.  Protected 
from the draft by a 4F classification (based on both physical 
and psychological frailties), he was promoted from the clip 
desk to researcher to staff writer. 
In 1943 he married Sally McCaslin, a researcher in the Books 
Department of Newsweek, and in 1944 they moved to 
Washington, D.C., where he became a reporter covering 
Capitol Hill for the old Washington Times-Herald. 
For the next twenty-nine years--until his death from a heart 
attack in 1973--he lived and worked as an editor and writer in 
the Washington area. 
He worked as a writer but not as a writer of fiction.  He 
covered national and city news for the Times-Herald and later 
for Pathfinder News, magazine.  Then in 1951 he joined the 
staff of the National Geographic magazine where the stories he 
wrote or edited encompassed the world.  He wrote fiction only 
in the last ten years of his life. 
Before that time he had other interests: a growing family (he 
had a son, Christopher, born 1944, and three daughters--Jane 
born in 1948, Sarah, in 1952, and Catherine, in 1958), music, 
reading, furniture making, and most important to his books, a 
growing interest in the world of nature. 
He came to this interest late.  Although he had spent his 
adolescent summers in camps, as a counselor and swimming 
instructor, he had grown up surprisingly oblivious to all but 
man-made creations.  He did not know the names of birds or 
trees, and it was a family joke that he called all flowers 
hydrangeas.  at the same time he was attracted to the quiet of 
the country and felt the need to escape from the pressures of 
job and city. 
In 1950 he bought a weekend place, a small house with 
seventeen neglected acres on the North Anna River in an 
isolated section of Spotsylvania Country, Virginia.  It was here 
that he began, for the first time, to feel a connection with the 
river, the woods and the wild animals around him. 
After three years of traveling to the country on weekends, he 
and his family opted for full-time rural living.  They gave up the 
weekend place and bought a small farm near the Potomac 
River within commuting distance of Washington.  Here they 
raised chickens and ducks, chopped wood and built fences, 
kept horses and a cow.  Conly even learned to milk the cow, 
although he never did get on well with large animals.  They 
made him nervous and he made them nervous (he used to vow 
the most docile horse bit or kicked if he got in its vicinity).  He 
liked small animals and birds, and his favorite of the many 
family pets was a small sparrow named Jenny which one of his 
children had raised from a fledgling and which, for several 
years, occupied a cage in the dining room. 
Robert C. O'Brien, the writer, was to draw on all these 
experiences and to recreate them in his books with the most 
painstaking detail.  He also, in one of his books, A Report 
From Group 17, used the physical locale of this farm as the 
setting of the book. 
In the ten years spent there, Robert Conly often talked of 
writing a novel.  Sometimes he started a short story.  but he 
already had more work than he could do--his job at the 
Geographic, the daily drive in and out of Washington, the 
endless chores of a house in the country. 
Then in the early 1960's he got an eye disease, glaucoma, the 
treatment of which affected his eyes so that he could no longer 
drive after dark.  There was no public transportation, and 
during the winter months he could not get home from work.  
The problem was resolved in 1963 with another move, this 
time back to the city. 
Robert Conly was now living fifteen minute from his office, in 
a modern brick house on a city lot.  Although he would again 
acquire a weekend retreat, on the Cacapou River in West 
Virginia, he suddenly had time on his hands and he began 
systematically to plan and to write a novel for children.  That 
book, The Silver Crown, was published by Atheneum in 1968.  
It was followed in 1971 by Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, 
which won the Newbery Medal.  In 1972 Atheneum published 
his adult suspense novel, A Report From Group 17, which was 
picked as an alternate by the Book-of-the-Month Club.  His 
latest book, Z for Zachariah, was published posthumously by 
Atheneum in 1975. 
He managed this steady output in spite of a full-time job with 
the National Geographic by giving up most social life and by 
writing at least a few paragraphs every day, Sundays and 
holidays included. 
He chose to write under a pen name because the Geographic 
frowned on outside writing by members of its staff; and, until 
his death, it was not generally known that Robert L. Conly, 
Senior Assistant Editor of the National Geographic Magazine 
and Robert C. O'Brien, fiction writer, were one and the same. 
He chose the name O'Brien because it was his mother's name 
and because in his Irishness, in his Catholicism, and in his 
complex, creative temperament, he identified very much with 
that side of the family. 
Two aspects of Robert C. O'Brien's writing seem closely 
related to his actual life--one, his fascination with the lore of 
nature, which he so lovingly details, and two, his sympathy for 
and understanding of children.  Perhaps harking back to his 
own struggle to grow up, he never forgot what it was like to 
be young and vulnerable; and he is able to make the reader 
share his concern for the weak and defenseless whether his 
characters are animal or human. 
Robert C. O'Brien died March 5, 1973 at the age of fifty-fife. 
Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, 19?? 



Robert C. O'Brien, who was honored in 1971 by the American 
Library Association for the year's most distinguished literatary 
book for children, died Monday in Washington of a heart 
attack.  He was 55 years old.  
Mr. O'Brien was awarded the John Newbery Medal for "Mrs. 
Frisby and the Rats of NIMH"--the story of a brave widowed 
mouse who defends her offspring from constant dangers.  Last 
year, his "A Report from Group 17"--a suspense novel about 
biological warfare--was chosen as an alternate selection by the 
Book-of-the-Month Club. 
In private life, Mr. O'Brien was Robert L. Conly, a senior 
assistant editor of the National Geographic magazine since 
1970.  He joined National Geographic in 1951, after having 
served on the staffs of Newsweek magazine and the 
Washington Times-Herald, and as news editor of Pathfinder 
Survivors include his widow, the former Sally McCaslin; four 
children, two brothers and two sisters. 
New York Times, Thursday, March 8th, 1973 
Died.  Robert L. Conly, 55, senior assistant editor of the 
National Geographic magazine, who under the pen name 
Robert C. O'Brien wrote a prize-winning children's book (Mrs. 
Frisby and the Rats of NIMH) and last year's top-rated cloak-
and-dagger tale for adults, A Report From Group 17; of a 
heart attack; in Washington, D. C. 
Time, March 19, 1973, p. 57

1997 Boris Masis

About Robert C'Obrien and Z for Zachariah,
What has been said about Robert C. O'Brien
The threat of nuclear disaster in the real world in comparisson to the novel,
Reviews of Z for Zachariah,