Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel
Mike Mulligan.jpg
First edition
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 listed 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 working together, Mike and his coal-powered steam shovel Mary Anne (whose name is a reference to the Marion Power Shovel Company) face competition from more modern gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels. Searching for work, they find a small town about to build a new town hall. Mike offers that if he and Mary Anne can't do the job in a single day, the town won't have to pay them. The town's selectmen – who believe the work would take a hundred men a week – hire Mike and Mary Anne, expecting to get their new cellar at no cost. Privately, even Mike has some doubts.

At sunup the next day Mike and Mary Anne begin work. When sundown comes they have just finished the job, but realize they have neglected to leave a ramp by which Mary Anne can get out of the cellar. A child suggests that Mary Anne be converted to a boiler for the new building's heating system, and that Mike become its janitor. Mike and Mary Anne settle contentedly into their new jobs.


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]

  • This popular book was occasionally read by host Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) on his children's television show of the same name.[3]
  • In Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, the title character starts kindergarten with an inexperienced teacher, Miss Binney, who reads Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel to the class. Ramona (glad to finally be in school where she can finally get such burning questions answered), then stumps the teacher with the question of how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom while digging the hole.


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.[4] In 2006, Weston Woods Studios adapted the book to an animated film narrated by David De Vries, and directed by Leigh Corra.


  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. ^ "Television". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-08-31.

External links[edit]