In praise of Mike Mulligan

My friends on social media often share excerpts from books they are reading: Illuminating passages from encyclicals, breathtaking ideas found in scholarly books about design and sociology.

I, on the other hand, post a little bit of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel:

I shared this after reading it aloud for maybe the eight thousandth time the other day. I was admiring once again the perfectly-crafted rhythm of the story. You would have to work really hard to read it wrong. In the page I shared, you can hear the building, busy excitement as more and more people get caught up in the action:

“Now the girl who answers the telephone called up the next towns of BANGerville and BOPperville and KIPperville and KOPperville and TOLD them what was HAPpening in POPperville.

“All the people came over to see if Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel could dig the cellar in . . . ”

and the sentence ends in three, flat, one-syllable words that land with incredulity:

“just. one. day.”

The author, Virgina Lee Burton, would read her books aloud to her own two sons and to neighbor children, to make sure they liked it. She said:

My first book, Jonnifer Lint, was about a piece of dust. I and my friends thought it was very clever but thirteen publishers disagreed with us and when I finally got the manuscript back and read it to Aris, age three and a half, he went to sleep before I could even finish it. That taught me a lesson and from then on I worked with and for my audience, my own children. I would tell them the story over and over, watching their reaction and adjusting to their interest or lack of interest . . . the same with the drawings. Children are very frank critics.

This is about the story, characters, and pictures, but also about the sound of the writing itself. When you’re reading aloud, a book is only as good as how well it can be read. An awful lot of modern children’s books have all the elements that people think kids want: zaniness, lots of frenetic action, lots of repetition; but they require the reader to make constant adjustments so the lines come out right. 

The execrable Skippyjon Jones books come to mind. They are hugely difficult to read aloud, because the words stutter and start and pile up, but rather than building excitement, they’re formless and aimless, littered with dreary puns that kids won’t get, lacking any purpose or arc. They always remind me of this clown, Cheryl, who used to turn up at children’s events. Her entire repertoire was screaming at the kids, because she heard kids like screaming, so here is some screaming. Cheryl was exhausting.

Anyway, about the story of Mike Mulligan. I was astonished to find that some people think it’s depressing. To paraphrase what several people said: He messes up one little job, and now he has to be a janitor forever! Mary Anne is interred in a basement for the rest of her life! I guess if I read the book for the first time as an adult — especially, perhaps, as a young housewife feeling overlooked and trapped — I might read it that way. 

But I did grow up loving the book, and so I’m predisposed to seeing more in it. It’s a John Henry story (“He always said that she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week but he had never been quite sure that this was true”);  except instead of a glorious death in the end, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes them nice hot apple pies. The end of the story is no dark tomb; sunlight pours into the basement, a sort of Elysian Fields for heroes who have earned their rest. 

Several of Burton’s books deal with the idea that progress is good, until it stops being good. (Her excellent The Little House is a more stark and melancholy story with the same theme.) Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are a victim of their own success. In their prime, they did all the works of progress: They dug the great canals, they cut through the high mountains, they lowered the hills and straightened the curves.

They were literally on the cutting edge of industry and progress; and that means they were destined to be surpassed. 

What are they to do? In a briefly grim passage, Mike has a vision of Gehenna:

It’s intolerable. But where else can you go, when you’ve come to the end?

But in Virginia Lee Burton books, there is always a way out; always a little bit of paradise still reserved for the worthy. So the two heroes set off for greener pastures

and Mike finally has the chance to find out if he and Mary Anne can really dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week. 

The busy pressure of their past life of industry is recreated in one final, intense day of crisis: He and Mary Anne are fighting against time. The era is coming to an end; the sun is going down. The only way to survive is to do what they are made to do, faster and faster.

And they win! They beat the sun. But in their victory, they have literally dug a hole for themselves that they can’t get out of.

And here is the brilliance of the book. How are they going to get out? It’s not just about this specific job; it’s about retaining their dignity and identity in a changing world. They’ve come to the end. What can be next?

It would make no sense for them to find more and more digging to do. They’re no longer wanted in the city, but they also can’t despoil the green and sunny world that saved their lives. So instead, rather than finding a way out, they find a way to stay in . . . but without defeat.

Mary Anne’s engine keeps working, but now she warms up the meetings at the new town hall. It’s the end of an era, and this is inescapable; but that doesn’t mean anyone is consigned to the netherworld. They lay down their hammer, but they do not die.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mike and Mary Anne’s virtues are transformed into warmth, rather than mere industry. (They always worked better and faster when people are watching, after all.)

And through their ordeal, Henry B. Swap, with small town scheming ways, is also transformed; and after Mike triumphs, “he spends most of his time in the cellar of the new town hall listening to the stories that Mike Mulligan has to tell and smiling in a way that isn’t mean at all.” So it turns out it’s all about people, in the end.

There are other children’s books that look back fondly on the past, but I’ve never found another book that deals with inevitable change in such a satisfying way.

But it’s not a lesson book, a wholesome moral disguised as a story; and that’s another of Burton’s virtues. My four-year-old doesn’t hear a Fin de siècle rumination on identity, mortality, and the mixed blessing of productivity. She hears an exciting story about digging, and billowing clouds of dust, and hurry hurry hurry, and Kipperville and Kopperville and Bangerville and Bopperville, and hot apple pies, and that’s what makes it a good book. 

So I guess I’m okay with being the one who gets all excited about children’s books, enough to share passages that I find illuminating. I know full well that some people see my kind of life as interred in a basement, endlessly changing diapers and wiping up crumbs instead of using my mind and my college degree and making constant progress. What can I say? I’m using the engine I have, and I feel like I’m making some warmth.

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34 thoughts on “In praise of Mike Mulligan”

  1. I loved your review and loved Mike Mulligan along with some others that I can’t quite bring to mind. Sadly, I wasn’t much of a reading mother or gma, for that matter, but I’d love to improve. I’ve taken note of the comments of authors and stories to look up and will search out other classics – not to be confused with prattle – so the books we read will truly be worthwhile for this hard-to-sit-still mema! I couldn’t get used to kids’ wiggles when I read or the tired feeling I got when reading, probably more due to a busy lifestyle! I’ve missed so much! I always enjoyed Danny and the Dinosaur, Curious George and Peter Rabbit but I know there are many more that are wonderful. Thanks for bringing this up!

  2. Oh my! This made me laugh so much! We dearly love MM here, and your analysis is absolutely on point. A series is most certainly in order!

  3. My husband is indirectly named for Mike Mulligan, and our boys know the story by heart. His grandfather was named William Mullican, but because the book was published when he was a kid, he was nicknamed Mike. My husband is named Mike Mullican, often mistaken for Mulligan. I, too, love the rhythm of reading it aloud. It’s the first book we give as a gift when someone has a baby, and we’ll always have a copy to read to our grands. Until I lived in New England I had no idea what a ‘selectman’ was though. 🤓

    1. I once asked my husband (who is a reporter, and has been to many, many selectman’s meetings) why they are called “selectman,” and he said, “Because ‘asshole’ is already taken.”

  4. As an Englishman in his sixties, I’d never heard of this book until today, so it’s probably come too late to form part of my mental furniture, but I will be seeking out a copy on the basis of the recommendations here.
    All the people coming to watch Mike and Mary Anne reminded me of an American children’s book that actually was part of my childhood, “Junket is Nice” by Dorothy Kunhardt (Harcourt, Brace and Company, Inc. 1933). Is this a book that is known at all in America today?

  5. Delightful! Thank you!

    When my daughter was a child her mother and I gave her books and more books, and then allowed her to choose her own books without any preachy-teachy pushing or hovering.

    Again, thanks.

  6. Even though my youngest is almost 13, I’ve kept all our favorite picture books out. Mike Mulligan and all Virginia Lee Burton’s books are favorites. Have you ever read books by Constance Heward, an English author? Her “Ameliaranne and the Green Umbrella” was read over and over and over and over at our house. My husband did fantastic voices for the genial old squire and his crabby sister. When my oldest was a toddler, I found an umbrella for him “with a goose’s head for a handle” and he loved it. My oldest kids were excited to get their own copies of Ameliaranne when they were in their twenties. They are hard books to find inexpensively.

  7. Thank you very much. I am a fan of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. The praise you give is thoughtful and well deserved. Now, I have a reason to add, which you wouldn’t have thought of for liking the book. My name is Douglas, or often, Doug. So when I read that “Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel dug the..”, my daughter would reach over and pat me on the shoulder. Dang, I’m not saying I was there, but that was hard, hot work. Splendid work of literature. The very copy I read to my children is on my bookcase shelf, even as we speak.

    What did G. K. say about fairy tales? They’re not important because children to teach about monsters, children already know monsters exist. They are important because they teach that monsters can be defeated. My hope is that he would approve, of the book, and your review of same.

  8. My children (mostly boys) have responded to The Little House more. A bit more relatable and colorful. They find Mike to be a bit boring.

    Someone mentioned Ferdinand — this is the number one hated book in my household. My husband calls it the “lazy daydreamer book.” Robert McCloskey is our favorite children’s author. 2nd place to the Little Tim books.

  9. This is still my favorite book of all time. The ending is perfectly sublime. I always thought of the ending, not as a compromise, but as a reward. It’s amazing to be able to share this story with my boys.

  10. I freaking love Mike Mulligan! I can’t imagine how anyone can find that story depressing — Mike and MaryAnne go from being rejected and unwanted to finding the place where they can contribute and are loved. I can barely read it to my kids without crying sometimes

  11. I love Virginia Lee Burton, and you’re absolutely right that the read-aloud rhythm of a children’s book can make or break it. So many books have gone back to the library by return post because they just don’t have the music to make them worth reading again.

    This isn’t just true of children’s picture books. There are many novels I’ve tried to read to the kids, only to lay them down because it feels like the author has never listened to two words put together. It gets to where I read my own writing aloud to see if it will stand up to more than one perusal.

  12. Although I can recognize the high quality of writing and illustrations of Virginia Lee Burton’s picture books, I’ve just never taken to them. When I had to read them to my son I found them painfully tedious to get through. When I went to analyze my antipathy – it seems like they should be charming – I realized I dislike the static feeling of having an inanimate or at least stationary object as the main “character,” which means the pictures are always of the same exact place. I get that she’s probably trying to say something about a sense of place, since she seems to favor this story type, but I do find it unpleasantly claustrophobic. And kind of un-story-like, I guess. Doesn’t every story have to be a journey, fundamentally?

    I kind of like “Katie and the Big Snow” – although even that is oddly claustrophobic, given how much Katie gets around town.

    1. I absolutely understand that literature is a matter of taste, but I don’t understand how you can describe this book as having pictures that are all of the same exact place. The whole action of the book is moving from the dark city to the bright country, then from the bright countryside to the dark hole, and then the building being made around them. Mary Anne is moving throughout the entire book, and it’s not until the last page that she’s stationary. Are you thinking of a different book by her?

      1. Yes, that comment was primarily about “The Little House” – sorry to be unclear! But I guess I find her preference for non-living artifacts as main characters, and the fact that the steam shovel ends up immured in the basement forever, to give the books a similarly static feel. Like I said, I can see they’re objectively good picture books – I just don’t like reading them! To me they’re like Mark Twain’s definition of a classic: a book you want to have read without actually wanting to read it.

          1. Oh, and I should have said – I can’t agree more about good/bad meter, and specifically that awful Skippyjohn Jones book! Why can’t modern picture book authors just write the meter right, for pete’s sake? (To answer my own question, I suppose it has something to do with schools’ having quit teaching poetry and scansion a couple generations back.)

  13. All the Frog and Toad books as a rare example of a series gone right. Simcha has mentioned them before, though.

  14. I love the shout out Beverly Cleary gave this book in her “Romana the Pest” book. I enjoyed this book as a kid too, but I haven’t read it in a long, long time.

    You do too use your college degree. I’m sure you’ve drawn on it to pass things on to your kids, but you also write, for crying out loud. I don’t claim to write as well as you do, but I know my degree (not in English or writing) makes a difference for me.

  15. Oh, yes! We love Mike and Mary Anne here, too. It’s one of the very best-of-the-best. We have a LOT of picture books, and they’re all good ones because I’m very particular and demanding about books, but still I have them sorted mentally between those that I will pass along in a few years when there are no children here left to read them — and those that I will keep to read to my grandchildren.

    “One Morning in Maine” by Robert McCloskey is another absolute favourite. And also…

    Simcha, why don’t you do a post on the Very Best Picture Books of the English-Speaking Peoples — and we’ll all chime in at the end with honourable-mentions?

    1. I love One Morning in Maine! (And Blueberries for Sal.) I wish I still had a child young enough to read these books with!

    2. I think a series is in order, anyway! there are plenty of lists of indispensable children’s books, but I find it so hard to just say “read this” without saying why.

  16. I saw the conversation on Facebook and also was surprised to hear that some find it depressing. It’s been a big favorite around here for years, and I still love it. I like that it’s not part of series. I find that when a children’s book author starts a series, their first book will be pretty neat (How Do Dinosaurs Go to Bed, for example) but they successively get worse, as the author is clearly straining to find a way to capture the charm of the first one with acceptable rhymes that fit the theme they chose (“How Does a Dinosaur Choose a Pet” is pretty bad).

    I also dislike picture books that are tie-ins to TV shows (Little Einstein, Daniel Tiger, et cetera). I’m okay with my kids watching those shows when they’re sick or something, but for reading I like to read something a little more edifying that “That made me feel sad. Do you ever feel sad?” *hurk* I think kids are smarter than that.

    That’s why the classic picture books are the best; Ferdinand, Mike Mulligan, Make Way For Ducklings. You can tell the author just wanted tell a neat story, and use lovely pictures to show the story. The end. No milking the cash cow of publication houses, just art.

    I am ashamed to say that my youngest became a fan of the Curious George movies and tv show, and he has also found sadly, the books based off those that do not come anywhere near the humor and illustrations in the original books by H.A. and Margret Rey. So I’ve made sure we have the original Curious George books, as a sort of antidote.

    1. “but they successively get worse, as the author is clearly straining to find a way to capture the charm of the first one with acceptable rhymes that fit the theme they chose (“How Does a Dinosaur Choose a Pet” is pretty bad).”
      This, which is too bad because Jane Yolen is normally quite reliable. “Good Griselle” for example.
      Agreed on the tie-ins too. We ended up with a couple ostensible Richard Scarry books, which aren’t his original “Best Ever” ones, but knock-offs (using his name, not even just saying “based on”) due to the tv show. Grrr.

  17. Awesome analysis of the story, as well as a great analogy. This hit home today, because I’ve made some humbling career choices in order to be more available to my son. Today I had a breakthrough in an academic skill I’ve been helping him with, and it was such a small thing yet so rewarding. Your analogy reminded me of that.

  18. I love this book so much! And it reminds me that nobody has so little they have nothing to give. I also super-love Katy the Snowplow.

  19. Thank you for reminding me of this beloved story. As a child in the sixties I heard this read aloud many times on the old Captain Kangaroo show. I feel as if I read it aloud to my kids at least twice a week between 1985 and 2000.

    1. Mike and Mary Ann are dear friends of our family. We also love Katie and the Big Snow.
      My MIL gave us a Scholastic video of the Mike Mulligan, one of those old videos using the original text and illustrations, only there are a few songs that became our favorites, especially “No Steam Shovels Wanted.” Kind of a bulldozer-bully anthem. I bet you could find it on youtube.

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