Book #48: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

Mike Mulligan -- CoverVirginia Lee Burton may have won the Caldecott Medal in 1943 for The Little House, but it’s Mike Mulligan that everybody loves to love.  How can you resist a powerful steam shovel named Mary Anne?  She’s really arresting looking, too, and you feel so bad for Mary Anne when her talents are usurped by newer innovations in digging.

Then along came
the new gasoline shovels
and the new electric shovels
and the new Diesel motor shovels
and took all the jobs away from the steam shovels.

I love this next illustration and accompanying text, which reads:

All the other steam shovels were being sold for junk, or left out in old gravel pits to rust and fall apart.  Mike loved Mary Anne.  He couldn’t do that to her.  

Mike Mulligan -- Shocked Mary Anne

Mike Mulligan makes a deal with one of the selectman arranging to build a new town hall in Popperville.  If Mary Anne can’t dig the cellar in a day, he promises, then the town won’t have to pay.

The story is suspenseful.  Will Mary Anne be able to dig that whole cellar in a single day?  Naturally the town constable and the postman and the telegraph boy and the milkman and the farmer and the doctor gather round to see if Mike Mulligan can pull off this mighty task. In Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, about arguably the most famous kindergartner in all of children’s literature, Ms. Cleary references Mike Mulligan by introducing the book during her fictional story hour. Ramona baffles her  teacher and the rest of her kindergarten classmates by asking how Mike Mulligan could go to the bathroom if he worked all day with his steam shovel.  It’s a very funny sequence.  People like me totally trip on those joyful tidbits.

It all ends cleverly for Mary Anne, of course, and when you close the last page of this book you feel as you do with all marvelous picture books, that you’ve just heard a great story that makes you sigh with contentment only a moment before asking that the story be read again.  And again!

Click here to read Book #49



  1. This is one I saved from my grandmother’s bookshelf. I loved the story when I was little, but as I got older I found the ending kind of appalling. Turning Mary Anne into a furnace seemed a nightmarish betrayal at some level. But re-reading it as an adult I can find the ending charming again.

  2. I agree with you. There is something kind of sad about just planting Mary Anne in the bottom of the town hall. But look, Mike stayed with her every day, and in the picture she looks happy. I can let it rest from there.

    Apparently Virginia Burton had a lot of trouble figuring out how to end this story, and she was delighted when a thirteen-year-old nephew (I believe) came up with the idea for Mary Anne to serve as the furnace. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken advice from an adolescent.

    I love that most of her books are about the encroachment of industry. It’s hard to be political in a children’s book and not sound all preachy. I think she wrote a great story and got her political commentary in there, too. Right? ABZ

  3. Matt Wright says:

    This is one of Calder’s all-time favorites. He loved it at age 2 and he still loves to pull it off the shelf at 5.

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