Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Story Summary

In this classic story from 1939 Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, take on a big challenge with determination to work hard and dig the cellar for the new town hall in Popperville. But how can they possibly finish the job in only one day?

Talk Before Reading

The title, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, tells the name of the characters, but who is Mike Mulligan and what’s a steam shovel?  Use the cover to get some answers. After reading the title, look at the cover together and ask your child to find Mike Mulligan. Since there is only one person on the cover, he’s set up for a successful answer. Now where is Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel? As the only other main object in the picture, he’ll likely point to the steam shovel correctly. (Give a hint, if needed: That steam shovel has a big smile!)

What just happened with that simple ten-second pointing activity?

Reading the title revealed the characters, but stopping to link the pictures with the names tunes him into the story.

A steam shovel won’t be familiar to today’s children, but the picture may call to mind some similar earth moving equipment he’s seen while passing a construction site. If so, prompt his memory: That reminds me of yesterday on our way downtown when we saw all those workers building the new road.

This connection to something similar grabs his recognition, even though he’s never seen a steam shovel.

Talk While Reading

What does a steam shovel do? The author tells the reader on the first page that steam shovels are for digging.

Mike Mulligan was very proud of Mary Anne. He always said 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.

Examples of what Mary Anne could dig give a young listener background information about the building of canals, mountain passes, highways, airports, and skyscrapers. Continue with the pointing activity used with the cover to connect the new words to the pictures. Where is the canal?

Mary Anne digs cellars for the tall skyscrapers. Ask your child if he knows what a cellar is–talk more about cellars, as needed.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are challenged to dig the cellar of the new town hall in Popperville in only one day or not be paid. Can Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne dig as much in a day as a hundred men can dig in a week? Mike Mulligan thinks they can do it, but isn’t totally sure. Henry B. Swap is certain they can’t. Ask your child what he thinks and why.

When your child tells what he thinks will happen, he is practicing using evidence to predict an outcome.

The rhythm in Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel adds to the enjoyment of this read-aloud:

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.

After a few readings, your child will probably be chiming in with you…Bangerville and Bopperville and Kipperville and Kopperville–and Popperville!

Talk Later

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel  helps children learn about life long ago, friendship, and taking on a challenge. Consider bringing Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne into the conversation when you give your child a job to do. Let’s pretend you are Mike Mulligan and all the toys have to be moved to the toy box–fast! The timer will go off in only two minutes! Can you do it?


Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967. (Originally published in 1939.)

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