Flashback Fridays: A clear case of trespassing . . .

You’re a spinster who loves the simple, quiet life on the farm, but when a group of men decide to use your farmlands as their launchpad for their rocket to Mars, you’ll wind up going along and taking no nonsense from anyone.

Do you remember:

Miss Pickerell Goes to Mars by Ellen MacGregor, illustrated by Paul Galdone (McGraw-Hill Companies, 1951)

I’m always learning something new.  A few weeks ago, when I was delving into 1950s science fiction for kids, this particular series fell out of the internet jumble and into my lap.  And let’s just say I’m a little gobsmacked.  Honestly, if someone had told me that there was a series of science fiction books for kids where the main protagonist was an older single woman (back in the day, a spinster) who lived on a farm, I’d probably have thought someone was playing a bit of a joke.  But that was before I discovered the undaunted Miss Pickerell.

In this first adventure, Miss Pickerell discovers government men readying to send up a rocket from her homestead.  She inadvertently gets added to the crew instead of the last scientist (who has difficulty with addresses).  And while this farm woman may not know much about being an astronaut, she’s willing to learn and adapt.  The science is dated, much like it is in The Space ship Under the Apple Tree and The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.  But, for all that, this book does tap into real science to help create the adventure.  Food on board the rocket is served in tubes.  The fact that there’s no atmosphere in space . . .   It’s not the most scientific minded tale out there, but it does a serviceable job of introducing a delightfully charming space adventure in only 128 pages.

Before her death, Ellen MacGregor wrote and published four complete Miss Pickerell stories.  Each dealt with different scientific adventures, and the author took some effort to include real scientific fact as it was known at the time.  Ellen MacGregor left extensive notes for further adventures of this delightful heroine, and author Dora Pantell took up the task of completing the series.  There are sixteen books in all, the last one published in 1986.  I’ve not found any real information on Ms. Pantell, and the only books credited to her are this series, but she appears to have done an admirable job keeping the series going.

The first four books includes illustrations by none other than fairy tale and folklore author/illustrator Paul Galdone. (I unfortunately can’t find any images of the art to share here).  Later books featured the art of Charles Geer.

This is one of those series that lots of young readers in the 1950s and 1960s encountered and absorbed.  The types of stories that inspired them and stuck with them. Clocking in at just over one hundred pages, these books were perfect for the intermediate readers just cutting their eyeteeth on chapter books.  Kids could read along and enjoy the adventures of Miss Pickerell . . . and dream about the future.  Like so many books from that period, the works have become dated and incorrect over time, as is the fate of much near-future science fiction, but they are important because of what they offered and represented at the time they were first published.  And one other significant bit.  There’s an undercurrent still in effect today that would imply that girls don’t like Science Fiction and therefore publishers don’t tend to put a lot of adventure SF out there with female protagonists.

With the challenge on to prove that girls are just as interested and capable of exploring science and engineering careers as boys, it’s important that new science fiction stories recognize that girls are reading these books too–and that they really haven’t ever stopped. Girls need to see female protagonists  out there in fiction–and that goes for adventurous science fiction as well!  I rather imagine that curmudgeonly Miss Pickerell would be leading the charge with her fearless spirit and conviction in her own abilities.

While out of print for some time, it looks like at least the first three books are now available as electronic Kindle editions so folks who want to discover Miss Pickerell for the first time, or those who want to share a fondly remembered series with the younger generations will have their chance.

Any fans of this series out there?  Comments welcome!

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on November 8, 2014, in Flashback Fridays, General Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I haven’t read it since I was a kid and don’t really remember the story, but I do remember loving Miss Pickerell Goes To Mars, and the Arctic book also looks totally familiar to me, I must have read that too. I’d love to read them again. It makes me think too about how books for kids with adult protagonists were much more usual, I guess, back then. Little note, I didn’t read them in the fifties! We had a lot of books like this I guess around the house.

  2. I totally remember loving Miss Pickerell Goes To Mars and the Arctic cover looks really familiar too, I must have read that one too. I don’t remember the stories, though. It would be great to reread them. It makes me think how it was a lot more usual to have adult protagonists for kids books. Little note, I didn’t read the books in the fifties! I guess we just had a lot of books like these lying around.

  3. I know I read some of these from my school library as a child! It wasn’t the 50s, but I think that little parochial school library had a lot of older books in it.

  4. erin (a librarian!)

    OMG! I loved those books as a kid, and I’ve _never_ come across anyone who’s heard of them!

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