Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel


I have written about waiting to leave for school in the morning as a kid.  Captain Kangaroo was integral to the experience for many reasons, but specifically the clock at the bottom of the screen let us know when it was time to leave.  I thank Captain Kangaroo for introducing me to Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton.

This is a story of obsolescence and growing old after working hard and doing your best.  Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne his steam shovel are part of the great United States expansion of machines, roads, and buildings.  They work hard and well and their labor is central to the effort – and then along come diesel powered machines and Mike and Mary Anne find themselves obsolete.  They go looking for work outside of the big cities where they find a community that is building a new city hall.  Mike claims that he and Mary Anne can dig the cellar for the new hall in one day. “Impossible!” A challenge is struck and Mike and Mary Anne work from sun up to sun down drawing a huge crowd of onlookers.  They finish in time, but they have forgotten to leave themselves a way out.


Of course there is a wonderful solution to the questions: did they succeed? how will they get out? what will Mike and Mary Anne do in this age of bigger, better, faster?

The story is wonderful, affirming our faith in the triumph of humanity over machine, and the drawings are terrific – they have a whiff of the naturalistic art of the thirties and forties, and the anthropomorphic shovel, Mary Anne, is both fierce and sweet.

This is one book that I hope never goes out of print.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, story and pictures by Caldecott medalist Virginia Lee Burton

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Herb Metzler says:

    I loved this book, but, I think, more importantly, I loved reading it to my kids. When I moved out to Davenport, and was missing them terribly, I came across a huge old steam shovel that had been abandoned near the riverfront, now buried under a blanket of snow. Its imposing, silent presence, stirred within me the idea for the opening scenes of a movie version of this book.

    1. Kate Tabor says:

      I just loved everything about this book, Herb – and what an image that steam shovel must have created, there by the river. It’s how I felt when we would drive across South Dakota and see the rusting ruins of old combines. May we all find a way to be useful and part of a warm community!

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