Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Mike Mulligan.jpg
AuthorVirginia Lee Burton
PublisherHoughton Mifflin Company
Publication date
ISBN0395169615 1967 edition
LC ClassPZ7.B954 Mi

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (ISBN 0-590-75803-9) is a children's book by Virginia Lee Burton. First published in 1939, in the wake of the Great Depression, it features Mike Mulligan, a steam shovel operator, and his steam shovel Mary Anne. It is considered a classic favorite of children's literature: based on a 2007 online poll, the National Education Association ranked the book as one of its "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children."[1]

An animated short film of the same name, directed by Michael Sporn, narrated by stand-up comedian Robert Klein, was adapted from the book and first aired by HBO in 1990; it has been regularly shown as an "HBO Storybook Musical" and has been released on DVD.


After many years of working successfully together, Mike and his classic steam shovel Mary Anne face competition from more modern gasoline, electric, and diesel motor shovels. Seeking an area of the country where his classic steam shovel can still find work, Mike finds a small town that is about to build a new town hall. The authorities react with disbelief when Mike claims that he and his steam shovel Mary Anne can dig the cellar in a single day; they protest that it would take a hundred men a week. Mike insists that Mary Anne can finish the job in one day, though he privately has some doubts.

At sunup the next day, Mike and Mary Anne begin work and just complete the task by sundown. But, they neglected to dig a ramp for driving out of the construction pit. A watching child suggests that Mike take the job of janitor for the town hall, and that Mary Anne should be converted to a boiler for the town hall's heating system.


According to a 2006 article in The Boston Globe, the author set the book in West Newbury, Massachusetts after she attended town meeting in 1938 and sketched town hall and the townspeople. She was inspired to convert the steam shovel to a furnace by the son of friends, as they all discussed the book over dinner:

At dinner on Chestnut Hill that evening, the author told the Albertsons and Berkenbushes about her dilemma. She had written Mike and Mary Anne into a literal corner -- they were stuck in the hole they dug for the Town Hall basement. Dick, then about 12 years old, suggested the steam shovel could become the building's heating source. It was a simple notion, he said. "My father had a garage in town that had a steam heating system, so I was familiar with it." [2]

(Note: The first edition of the book spelled Dick Berkenbush's name incorrectly in a footnote crediting him with this idea.)[2]

Cultural references[edit]

  • In the book Ramona the Pest (1968) where Ramona's kindergarten teacher reads the book to the class and Ramona asks, "If Mike Mulligan digs all day, when did he stop to use the bathroom?"
  • This popular book was occasionally read by host Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) on his children's television show of the same name.[3]
  • In the American independent film, Slacker (1991), the book is shown on a shelf under the projector in the bedroom.[4]
  • Julia Sauer's 1954 children's book Mike's House tells the adventures of a small boy who checks out Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel so many times he calls the library Mike's House.


In 1990, HBO first aired an animated short film adapted from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, directed by Michael Sporn adapted and narrated by stand-up comedian Robert Klein and produced by Michael Sporn Animation and Italtoons Corporation. As of 2012 this short film is regularly shown as an "HBO Storybook Musical." It was released on video by Golden Video (a partner company of Golden Books). The video was also released on DVD by Scholastic Books under HBO license, along with 27 other films adapted from classic children's books.[5]


  1. ^ National Education Association (2007). "Teachers' Top 100 Books for Children". Retrieved August 22, 2012.
  2. ^ a b James Sullivan (March 30, 2006). "As a child, his steam fueled hot 1939 children's classic". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-07-04.
  3. ^ "For generations of kids, he was Captain Kangaroo". Los Angeles Times. 2004-01-26. Retrieved 2019-08-31.
  4. ^ https://m.media-amazon.com/images/M/MV5BNWUwNTQzYzAtOWExZC00OWNhLWE5ZjUtODY2NTU1OTI2Y2MxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUyNDk2ODc@._V1_.jpg
  5. ^ "Television". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-08-31.

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