Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton

I can’t remember my life before Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. My mama read it to us, sitting on the big bed in her room. The bedspread was lemon yellow, with hundreds of tiny pom-poms all over it. I’m sure there’s a word for this kind of fabric, but I didn’t know the word. I just really liked twiddling with those little green-pea-sized poms.

I love this book so much. I love that it was published before picture books became standardized (1000 words, 32 pages, always no matter what). I love the glimpse of old-fashioned small-town life it provides, and the way it alludes to industrialization and technology and their impact in one human microcosm. I love the way you can read the whole story as a testament to the wonders of reusing and recycling. I love the rhythm of the words, the way they stick in your memory and appeal to the part of your brain that descended from your pre-literate ancestors who told stories in sing-song voices around a crackling fire in the cave.

It wasn’t till I read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel to my own child that I noticed the footnote near the end of the book. It’s on the page where “the little boy, who had been keeping very quiet, had another good idea.” (I’m not going to spoil the story for you. You’ll have to read the book to find out what the idea was and why Mike Mulligan needed it.) The footnote says, “*Acknowledgements to Dickie Birkenbush.”

Who is Dickie Birkenbush?

A few seconds of research provides the answer. Dickie Birkenbush was the 12-year-old son of Virginia Lee Burton’s friends. His family happened to be at the Burton house for dinner one night when Virginia was talking about the book. She had “written herself into a corner” and wondered what to do. Dickie offered a suggestion, she took it, and the rest is picture-book history. Interestingly, Dickie’s name was spelled incorrectly in the original edition of the book (which I have). In later editions, the footnote is corrected to read “*Acknowledgments to Dickie Berkenbush.”

You will be pleased to learn that Dickie grew up to be a fire chief, police chief (it was a small town), and selectman. I’m sure he did a much better job than Henry B. Swap.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is available on Amazon in library binding, paperback, board book, ebook, audiobook, and hardcover 75th anniversary editions.

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