After being turned down for her first children’s book by 13 publishers, Virginia Lee Burton started testing her stories on her own children first.

English: Marion Steam Shovel Model 90, 1908 im...

Marion Steam Shovel Model 90, 1908 image showing the shovel at work on the Panama Canal. Image taken from a 1915 Marion Shovel catalog. Company defunct; archives given to Marion Historical Society, Marion Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“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.”

Are there any children in the world who aren’t fascinated by the sight of big, heavy equipment digging up the ground for a new building?

We may not have coal-fired steam shovels anymore, like in Burton’s 1939 depiction in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, but, they are recognizably earth movers.

And, in fact, the thrust of Burton’s story is that, even then, in the 1930s, the coal-powered steam shovel, once used to dig the Panama Canal, was on its way out, overtaken by cheaper diesel versions.

We still call them steam shovels, the same way we still “dial” a phone, long after we moved to touch-tone and now touch screen dialing.

Now, they are properly called power shovels, a nod to their electric winches.

But, they still crowd, hoist and swing, describing how the bucket moves, just like the illustration on the inside of the front cover of the book, which labels the parts of the steam shovel.

The hero of Mike Mulligan And His Steam Shovel, after he bragged that his equipment could do the work of 100 men in a day, was a little boy.

Mike’s steam shovel did, indeed, dig the entire basement for a new city hall in a day.

But, then, he couldn’t get out.

It was a little boy who suggested they repurpose the steam shovel as a furnace for the new building.

And, the steam shovel found a new purpose.

Burton wrote seven children’s books before she died of lung cancer in 1968, at the age of 59.

Click here to order Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to show your grandchildren used to be built.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers



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