Traditional Thursdays: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel


mikeWritten and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton in 1939, this children’s book takes us back to a time in which gasoline, electric, and Diesel motor shovels were replacing steam shovels. Mike Mulligan and his beautiful red steam shovel, Mary Anne, are the hardest workers in the city. Mike takes great care of his beloved steam shovel, as they work countless jobs together, cutting through mountains for a railroad to be built or digging deep holes for the cellars of tall skyscrapers. Mike and Mary Anne do not know what to do when the gas and electric shovels begin to take all of their work.


The repeated line in the book is that Mary Anne could “still dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week; at least he thought she could but he wasn’t quite sure.” This line is eventually tested as both Mike and Mary Anne head out of the big city to Popperville to try and find some work again. In order to be chosen as the crew to dig Popperville’s new town hall cellar, Mike bets that Mary Anne can dig the cellar in one day, and if not, then Henry B. Swap, who was in charge of the building project, will not have to pay them for the work. Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne work so fast and so hard that only after they have finished do they realize that Mary Anne has no way to get out of the hole she dug. You will just have to pick up the book yourself to find out the endearing and creative solution that Burton provides.


Virginia Lee Burton does not only engage her young readers by bringing her characters to life, but she uses her bright colored pencil illustrations and book design to add interest. I love the end pages of Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel that detail the different parts and functions of the steam shovel. In addition, the text fits and flows nicely through the page. Check out Burton’s other works, The Little House and Katy and the Big Snow for a warm-hearted story about characters just as charming as Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne.

-Flora Neuhoffimages




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