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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

A Classic Children's Picture Book

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Cover of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Although its popularity was not expected when it was first published more than 70 years ago, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton has become a timeless classic. Driver Mike Mulligan is so proud of his beautiful red steam shovel, Mary Anne. The driver and the steam shovel are good friends, having spent years and years together digging canals, cutting through mountains, lowering hills, straightening curves, smoothing ground, filling in holes, creating landing fields and digging holes. However, with the years come changes, progress and new machines. Children in preschool through third grade will root for Mary Anne to find a place in this changing world.
Mike Mulligan is so very proud of his trusty steam shovel, Mary Anne. He often boasts that she can dig as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week, but he has never been quite sure that this is true. Over their years together Mike and Mary Anne have completed a great many digging projects. With each job, they always become a little faster and a little better, especially when people stop to watch them.

With time and progress come new gasoline shovels, new electric shovels and new Diesel motor shovels that are taking jobs away from steam shovels like Mary Anne. When Mike learns that the town of Popperville is going to build a new town hall, he is certain that digging the cellar is the job for Mary Anne.

Mike even claims they will finish the job in one day and, if not, the town won’t have to pay them for their work. Never before have Mike and Mary Anne had so many people watch them. They dig so fast and so well that they forget to leave a way out. The solution is surprising and unexpectedly comes from a quiet little boy in the crowd.

The Illustrations

The endpapers set the stage for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel with a detailed diagram of the steam shovel and each part labeled including a steam shovel’s actions...crowd, hoist, and swing. The page layout of the text and the colored-pencil images are thoughtfully and deliberately placed. Burton’s work on Mike Mulligan took place over a couple of years, which is understandable with the close attention Burton gave to pattern, repetition, spacing, and a sense of movement.

For example, several of the double-page spreads show white and gray smoke from the engine paralleling puffy white clouds in the sky with the text placed in a like shape. Mary Anne, who appears to have a face with changing emotions, is the focus of the story. The illustrations portray her large, front and center, while Mike is always closely by his friend. Many of the book’s characters resemble real people from West Newbury, Massachusetts, but it is Burton’s son, Michael, who was the model for the blonde hair ed boy on the dedication page and, later, the boy with the solution to what to do with Mary Anne (Elleman 2002).

Author and Illustrator Virginia Lee Burton

Born in Newton Center, Massachusetts in 1909, Virginia Lee Burton published her most famous book, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, in 1939. The book has stayed continuously in print since then. After marrying her art teacher, George Demetrios, Burton and her husband found a house in Folly Cove, a section of Gloucester, Massachusetts. It was to be their home for the rest of their lives. There they raised two sons.

Burton became the mentor of a group known as the Folly Cove Designers whose members were recognized nationally for their textile designs. Many of Virgina Lee Burton’s stories came from her own surroundings and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is no exception. As a young boy, her son Michael’s favorite toy was a steam shovel, and near her home steam shovels dug a cellar in a new high school. The solution to the problem in the book of the steam shovel in the town hall cellar came from the thirteen year old grandson of a friend, Dick Berkenbush.

Burton's last book, Life Story, might well be considered her most ambitious effort, introducing readers to her home and life in Folly Cove.

Again in Life Story, Burton continues to explore the theme of survival through change as introduced in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and in The Little House, for which she won the 1943 Randolph Caldecott Medal. Virginia Lee Burton wrote and illustrated only seven books, including Katy and the Big Snow which is included in the article Best Children's Picture Books About Winter and Snow. In addition to illustrating her own children's books, Burton illustrated just six more for others, yet she continues to be recognized as one of the major American children’s author-illustrators of the twentieth century. To learn more, watch the About.com video profile of Virginia Lee Burton.

(Sources: Virginia Lee Burton: A Life In Art by Barbara Elleman, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2002 and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: Virginia Lee Burton)

My Recommendation

Although the technology is outdated, the story of Mile Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is still fresh. The action and emotional involvement of the plot will draw readers young and old to care about Mary Anne. The story provides an opportunity for adults to reflect on and discuss a variety of topics with their children, including: problem solving (How can Mary Anne get out of the basement?), an introduction to history (What is a party line? a telegraph boy? a milkman? and a steam shovel?), recycling (What are some new uses for things we already own?) Although the story may be a little long for a story time setting, an individual reading will allow for a more interactive reading and the pleasure of pouring over the detailed illustrations. This captivating story is one that you won’t mind when your child says, "Read it again!" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1977 PB. ISBN: 9780395259399)

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