Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel


Virginia Burton did several illustrated books for kids between 1937 and 1952. Perhaps not surprisingly, my own personal favorite is Maybelle the Cable Car1, retrieved from the San Francisco Library’s archives about citizens stepping up and insisting that San Francisco keep its cable car lines despite advances in transportation technology. The Little House, about a country house engulfed by urban sprawl, won the Caldecott but judging by holdings in MELCAT2 and reviews on Goodreads, it’s Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel that’s the more popular by far. At 70-75 years after their original publication, I have to wonder how much of that is pure nostalgia, though given the number of kids who can say “excavator” and “backhoe” before more prosaic words such as “please” and “sandwich”, there will always be a place for books about large noisy equipment of this sort. Given that advances in technology is rather the point of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, perhaps it’s appropriate that libraries keep the book!

For those not into older books for kids: Mike Mulligan owns and operates a decidedly anthropomorphic steam shovel named Mary Anne. Together, this team (along with other similar shovels) dug many great works of construction–canals and roadbeds, train cuttings and airport landing fields. Time and technology have begun to pass them by, though: gasoline shovels and electric shovels and Diesel shovels have taken all the jobs from poor Mike and Mary Anne. Despite Mike keeping Mary Anne in good repair, there is nothing for them until Mike reads that the town of Popperville is building a new town hall. The two head off and Mike offers to dig the cellar in just one day or the town selectmen won’t have to pay him. Needless to say, they are doubtful but accept the challenge. Can they do it? With the encouragement of villagers observing the process, Mike and Mary Anne get to work.

Never fear: the book has a happy ending though not quite what we might expect. The pair does finish a very nice cellar with mere moments to spare…but they forgot to make a ramp for Mary Anne to get out of the cellar! The town adults discuss at great length but cannot decide what to do, until a sensible little boy suggests that Mary Anne be converted into the furnace for the new town hall and Mike remain on as janitor. The town gets a nice warm town hall and Mike and Mary Anne live out the rest of their years together.

Now obviously, this isn’t a particularly realistic book and wasn’t at the time it was written. Mary Anne the steam shovel is very much anthropomorphized in the illustration; she smiles happily as she scoops out dirt, cries alongside her dejected owner after being turned away from yet another job given to more modern shovels, and is aghast at the steam shovels relegated to the junk yard. It’s a sweet antiquated story; while I hope libraries will continue to wax nostalgic about this sort of book, I can see that many kids (then and now) wouldn’t be at all interested in something so saccharine. What to read next? Oddly as the stories and illustration style very different, I’d say Bill Peet, who wrote The Caboose who got loose among other books.

1an example of regional differences in library collections
2a Michigan shared catalog primarily for Inter-Library Loan

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2 thoughts on “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

  1. I like all of her books, but my favorite is “Katie and the Big Snow.” I love how they show her plowing out the map of the city.

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