Thoughts on writing and reading for boys and young men.
There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy's life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure. -Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Featured Book: Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton
Houghton Mifflin, 1939

In Virginia Burton's Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, the reader learns, in a series of beautiful and detailed pictures, what a steam shovel can do: dig canals, cut through mountains, lower hills, straighten curves, smooth ground, fill in holes, create landing fields for planes, and dig holes for the cellars of skyscrapers. Mike Mulligan is proud of his steam shovel Mary Anne (apparently a reference to Marion Steam Shovels), and boasts that she could dig in one day what 100 men could do in one week, and the two always work faster and better when others are watching.   

But gas, electric, and diesel shovels are rapidly replacing steam shovels. Out with the old and in with the new. Mike knows that Mary Anne still has worth; so he goes to the small town of Popperville, which needs a basement dug for its new town hall. Mike is so confident that the work can be done in a day (remember his boast about the 100 men?) that he promises that the labor will be free if not completed by nightfall. 

At dawn the next day, they set out to work. The reader gets the sounds of the digging: BING! BANG! CRASH! SLAM! The people of Popperville (and neighboring Bangerville, Bopperville, Kipperville, and Kopperville) all come to watch, which makes Mike and Mary Anne work faster and better! The ending is exciting and unexpected: Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement! 

This dilemma encourages interaction with the reader, asking of him what should be done in this situation.  Ultimately, upon the suggestion of the little boy in the story (based on the suggestion given to Burton by a real-life 12-year-old), it is decided that Mary Anne will be used to heat the new town hall, and Mike is given a job there so that he may always be with her.  The technology in the book is deliberately outdated (and infinitely more outdated now). But the story still feels fresh. Ahead of it's time, even. At least for me.  I'm still young, but I can feel more and more each day just how quickly the world moves, and how easy it is to feel suddenly irrelevant. Especially as a writer. Mike Mulligan encourages salvage and reuse of valuable resources and finding value in things (and people!) that might otherwise be written off. Not preservation for preservation's sake, but creative and essential new uses for what we already have.

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