One-Minute Book Reviews

July 27, 2007

Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read #3: ‘Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel’

An old steam shovel pushes herself to the limit to prove that she can still be useful

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. By Virginia Lee Burton. Varied editions. Ages 2–6.

By Janice Harayda

Generations of children have loved this exciting story of an old red steam shovel who pushes herself to the limit to prove that she can still be useful. But Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is about more than the heroism of Mary Anne and her devoted companion, Mike, who refuses to abandon her when “the new electric shovels / and the new Diesel motor shovels / took all the jobs away from the steam shovels.”

Virginia Lee Burton’s classic picture book is also a poignant tale of growing old in America, and the desire of all ages to be valued. First published in 1939, it was far ahead of its time in its enlightened portrayal of women’s strengths. Mike believes that Mary Anne “could dig as much in a day / as a hundred men could dig in a week.” And the two of them have plenty of character strength, too. When people in big cities no longer need their services, they refuse to give up. Instead they head for tiny Popperville, where they’ve heard there’s work, only to face the greatest test of their love and skills.

Arriving at the end of the Great Depression, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is partly a metaphor for the struggle of many groups, especially the Irish, to find jobs. The text never mentions Mike and Mary Anne’s ethnicity. But the dust jacket of an old edition says pointedly that the book is “the story of a faithful Irish steam-shovel artist and his steam shovel — the beguiling Mary Anne.” And a picture shows a sign that says, “No Steam Shovels Wanted,” an echo a familiar sign in its day, “No Irish Need Apply.”

But if the reference is lost on modern readers, it doesn’t matter, because of the vitality of the story and art. Burton was among the first author-illustrators to insist on the unity of text and pictures and to include some elements that have become standard, such as detailed endpapers. “Her stories may be simple and straightforward; but her books have heroes and heroines children can understand and enjoy, including ingenious and satisfactory endings, and lively illustrations,” Lee Kingman, a former director of The Horn Book, has written. “The books survive because they exhibit so effectively the elements most basic to children’s literature.”

Best line/picture: “Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne. / He always said that she could dig as much in a day / as a hundred men could dig in a week, / but he had never been quite sure / that this was true.”

Worst line/picture: Burton dots the capital “i’s” in “Mike” and “Mulligan” on the cover of the book.

Furthermore: Burton’s The Little House won the Caldecott Medal in 1943. A recent book-and-CD edition of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) has orchestral accompaniment.

Links: The Houghton Mifflin site includes Mike Mulligan–inspired activities for children:

For more “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read,” please see the reviews of Madeline and Millions of Cats

Can you suggest other classic picture books every child should read? If so, why not leave a comment for others who visit this site looking for ideas? Please mention the age(s) of children who might enjoy a book.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A new review of a book for children or teenagers appears on this site every Saturday.

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