Friday, January 17, 2020

Old Children's Book: Mrs. Pickerell Goes to the Arctic. by Ellen MacGregor

Old Children's Book: Mrs. Pickerell Goes to the Arctic, by Ellen MacGregor

a review by Rich Horton

(Cover by Paul Galdone)
I thought it time to return to a subtheme of this blog -- old children's books. Well, I thought that when I found a copy of Miss Pickerell Goes to the Arctic for 50 cents (the same price it sold for from Scholastic in the 1970s!) at an estate sale last weekend. I remembered Miss Pickerell as a the heroine of a series of books that some people used to cite as early science fiction they read when they were kids. (Particularly, I suppose, the first in the series, Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars, from 1951.) I never encountered these books as a child, so I thought a look would be interesting.

Ellen MacGregor was born in 1906 in Baltimore. She seems to have lived a peripatetic life -- she got her degree in Library Science from the University of Washington in Seattle, and worked as a librarian in Hawaii, in Chicago, and in Florida among other places. She began writing in the 1940s, and her first children's book was published in 1947. Miss Pickerell first appeared in a short story in 1950, and the story was expanded into Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars. Two further Miss Pickerell books appeared before she died, only 47, in 1954. She had completed the fourth Miss Pickerell book, the one at hand, Miss Pickerell Goes to the Arctic, and that came out the same year. (These books were copiously illustrated by Paul Galdone, an artisit I remember very well from my childhood.) Several further Miss Pickerell books were written by Dora Pantell, and credited to Pantell and MacGregor for a while, though as far as I can tell, it's unlikely that Pantell was working from any material MacGregor left behind.

The Miss Pickerell books were noted at the time for their effort to emphasize accurate science, even when she was traveling to Mars. I have to say that this entry does seem mostly accurate, at least as of 1954. The pedagogic side of MacGregor's writing is quite noticeable, with fairly frequent stops to somewhat awkwardly emphasize (usually to Miss Pickerell) some scientific fact.

Miss Pickerell is a middle aged spinster, living on a farm in Square Toe City with her beloved cow and also with her adult niece and nephew, Dwight and Rosemary. The action in this book begins with Miss Pickerell at a soda fountain, discussing the encyclopedia Miss Pickerell has lent to the soda jerk, Mr. Esticott, who is also a train conductor. This opens the opportunity for some information about the migration habits of the arctic tern to be given to the reader ... and for Mr. Esticott to mention his cousin Foster, a retired Arctic bush pilot.

Miss Pickerell is looking for a present for her cow, and one thing leads to another, as she learns that Foster would desperately love to fly to the Arctic to help with a research expedition, while she also meets a salesman trying to market his new snowmobile/mobile home. So Miss Pickerell agrees to buy the mobile home for her cow ... but then there's an emergency on the Arctic expedition, and somehow Foster ends up flying his plane up there with the snowmobile in the back, accompanied by Miss Pickerell and the salesman (who is also an engineer and a pilot.)

The action concerns terrible weather in the Arctic, a crash landing, lack of fuel for the snowmobile, and a desperate mission to get fuel and then get to the original expedition to rescue them. Miss Pickerell's ends up on an ice island, and her beloved umbrella comes in handy. (Given away on the cover.) All in all there's not a ton of tension, and things all seem a bit implausible, but I can see that I might have liked this as a kid. Miss Pickerell is a reasonably fun character, anyway.


  1. I read all of her books as a kid. Maybe 5th grade or so.

  2. I still like the books. Anyone who takes a cow on her adventures is aces to me.