• Happy birthday Marilyn Singer (Mirror Mirror, Tallulah’s Tutu). Also best birthday wishes to Melanie Watts' Scaredy Squirrel.
  • It’s the birth date of Natalie Savage Carlson (1906-1997), The Family Under the Bridge
  • In 1872, Bloomingdale’s department store opens in New York City. Read Amy Elizabeth Explores Bloomingdale’s by E. L. Konigsburg and Ruby, the Red-Hot Witch at Bloomingdale’s by Marlene Fanta Shyer.
  • No Salt Week begins today. Read The Story of Salt by Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by S. D. Schindler, Salt In His Shoes: Michael Jordan In Pursuit of a Dream by Deloris Jordan and Roslyn M. Jordan, illustrated by Kadir Nelson, and A Day in the Salt Marsh by Kevin Kurtz, illustrated by Consie Powell.
  • It’s Virus Appreciation Day. Read Iris Has a Virus by Arlene Alda, illustrated by Lisa Desimini.

October 6-12 has been designated Great Books Week to remind us to use our time well by picking up excellent books. By asking questions such as “if stranded on an deserted island, what five books would you want?” or “what books do you read over and over?” the organizers hope to get us all to focus on the books that really matter in our lives.

I try to accomplish this kind of thinking every day on the Almanac. But since there are a few “great” books that haven’t easily fit any other category, I’ll take a look at them over the next week. And I hope my readers will weigh in with their list of five books that they can’t live without or the ones they read again and again.

Let me start with Virginia Lee Burton’s Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which explores one of Burton’s favorite themes—how the old order must make way for the new and still survive. A steam shovel, Mary Anne, originally named Bertha in the manuscript, “who could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week,” finds her jobs taken away by newer, faster steam shovels. But with her champion, Mike Mulligan, at the helm, Mary Anne proves her worth. After digging a cellar for the town hall in Popperville, she stays there and becomes the furnace for the building.

Before Burton committed herself to any project, she read the story for at least a month to her two sons, Aris and Michael. If they didn’t want to hear it after that period of time, she felt it not worthy of moving to book form. An early lesson in reusing and recycling, Burton’s early drafts of Mike Mulligan found ready listeners in her sons and their friends.

But she struggled to find a satisfying end to the story. Then one of her sons’ friends, Dickie Berkenbush, presented her with the idea of installing Mary Anne as the town hall furnace. Children often help writers during the artistic process, but Burton did something extraordinary and generous. She credited him in the book. Hence after Richard Berkenbush became an adult, he was able to claim credit for his contribution to this classic. During his life he was always present at events for Mike Mulligan, enjoying the praise that Burton made it possible for him to receive.

Published in 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel remains one of the most frequently read, and reread, books of childhood and has become a cultural icon. In fact, more Americans have read Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel than have ever read any Pulitzer Prize–winning novel.  If you haven’t picked up this heartwarming story recently, you’re missing one of our greatest books for children.

Here’s a page from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel:


Originally posted October 3, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: History, Machines, Technology
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel


  1. Dan says:

    It’s hard to narrow this list down to five, but here goes, with one pick for each grade level 3-7:

    3 – Charlotte’s Web
    4 – Because of Winn-Dixie
    5 – Frindle
    6 – The Westing Game (or The Mysterious Benedict Society)
    7 – Wonderstruck (my newest favorite, along with Okay for Now)

    I may have to have another list just for picture books.

  2. Anita says:

    Dan: Thanks for getting the discussion started. You get to take five picture books, as well, since you responded first!

  3. Ariel Cooke says:


    I would pick:

    -Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke
    -The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall
    -The Exiles in Love by Hilary McKay
    -Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
    -The Children of Green Knowe by L.M. Boston


  4. This is one of those impossible task, where I feel like I’m hurting a book’s feelings if I don’t pick it, but here it goes -in no particular order:

    Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
    The Phantom Tollbooth
    Tintin (all of them!)
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
    The Neverending Story

  5. Dan says:


    OK, here are my top five picture books (as of right now.)

    Click, Clack, Moo. Cows that Type
    My Dog is as Smelly as Dirty Socks
    Tadpole’s Promise
    Miss Rumphius

  6. Maria says:

    This is difficult, but my top five picture books (at this moment) are:

    Strega Nona (I have a soft spot for Tomie dePaola)
    Dear Mrs. LaRue (great for teaching letter writing)
    The Mitten (so many details to find in the illustrations and borders)
    Shark in the Park (simply because of how fun it is to use during storytimes)
    Corduroy (one of my childhood favorites)

  7. Anita says:

    I know these are difficult to pick. But this is so helpful to me, as the person who picks books for the Almanac. I am always interested in the books people feel they cannot live without.

  8. Darsa says:

    I love how each of my three sons have loved THE LITTLE HOUSE, KATY AND THE BIG SNOW and MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL as much as I love them. The latter two are currently in heavy rotation for my 4yo…

    Top Five (personal):

    1. Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace
    4. GONE-AWAY LAKE (ALL Enrights, actually)

    Picture books we currently reread constantly:

    SESAME STREET ABC BOOK (mine from childhood… it has a story for every letter of the alphabet)

  9. Alida Bunder says:

    This is a great post. Makes you think really hard to pick just 5 books.
    I would take:
    ELOISE, by Kay Thompson
    THE BOXCAR CHILDREN by, Gertrude Clandler
    TALE OF PETER RABBIT by Beatrix Potter
    GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown

  10. 1. Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace
    2. A Ring of Endless Light by Madeline L’Engle
    3. Sal Fisher, Girl Scout by Lillian Gardner
    4. All of a Kind Family series by Sidney Taylor
    5. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

  11. Susie says:

    Betsy-Tacy series Lovelace
    Practically Perfect Lambert
    The Ink Drinker Sanvoisin
    The Secret Garden Burnett
    Journey to the River Sea Ibbotson

  12. Philip Nel says:

    Sticking solely to picture books, here’s a list:

    1. Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955) because it’s the most succinct expression of imaginative possibility ever created.
    2. Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006) because it’s a richly imagined, beautifully rendered, wordless graphic narrative of immigration, dislocation, and hope.
    3. Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, The Story of Ferdinand (1936) because, with a mix of humor and gravity, it sustains many very different interpretations.
    4. Delphine Durand, Bob & Co. (2006) because it’s a story about life, the universe, and story.
    5. Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (1984) because it offers an infinite number of stories.

    I so enjoyed this idea that I’ve just posted a 10-book picture-book list over on my blog:

    (And, of course, I’ve encouraged folks to come back here to post their lists.)

  13. G.Perry says:

    I’ll have to stay after class. My wild wild fingers wouldn’t stop at five.

    Goodnight Mister Tom (Most read)

    The Giver (Easily the most powerful.)

    Sarah, Plain and Tall. (The most perfection in one book.)

    The Wind in the Willows. (Pipers at the Gates of Dawn.. )

    Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. (Terrible and beautiful.)

    Snowman (THE perfect picture book.)

    Anne of Green Gables. (Been there myself Anne Girl.)

    The Melendy Quartet (The Saturdays, etc.)

    Secret Garden. (Many adults coming out of childhood brutality know nature heals.)

    Golden Compass.

    Good-Bye Mr/ Chips (tied for most read.)

    Tom’s Midnight Garden. Amazing creativity.)

    Homecoming. (Made my soul ache. Been there done that.)

    The Story of Ferdinand. (Made me smile, and smile and smile.)

    I could easily do ten more ya know.

  14. Anita says:

    Thanks everyone. What great lists!

  15. Cathy L says:

    Sarah, Plain and Tall
    The Great Brain series
    All of a Kind Family series (especially the first one)
    Betsy-Tacy series (especially “Heavens to Betsy”)
    Little House in the Big Woods

  16. Cathy L says:

    Picture books:

    Any “Flicka Ricka and Dicka” book (Lindman)
    The Little House (Burton)
    The Snowy Day (Keats)
    Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day (Viorst)
    Make Way for Ducklings (and all Robert McCloskey books)

  17. Cathy L says:

    I forgot my favorite book of all tme: Cheaper by the Dozen.

  18. Dan says:

    And I can’t believe I forgot Holes!

  19. Jen D-K says:

    Oh, what a fun challenge!

    1. BETSY-TACY SERIES by Maud Hart Lovelace
    2. JULIA HARRINGTON by Richard Bissell
    3. THE LUCKIEST GIRL by Beverly Cleary
    4. THE ELDERBERRY BUSH by Doris Gates
    5. THE CHANGELING by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

    And now I want to hunker down and reread every one of these! But first I need to give some love to the ones I didn’t choose . . .

  20. Kelly says:

    Lot’s of good books so far, here are my 5:

    1. The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear
    2. Harry the Dirty Dog
    3. Poky Little Puppy
    4. Where the Wild Things Are
    5. Danny the Dinosaur

    …..wow, that was hard! There are so many wonderful books to choose from!

  21. Mrs. D says:

    OK….here goes..

    For chapter books, my top 5…

    The Melendy books…(The Saturdays, Four Story Mistake…etc.)

    Ramona and her Father

    The Egypt Game

    Trixie Belden mystery series (I had just about the whole original 16 or 18 books when I was in grade school.)

    Soup and Me, or Soup…by Robert Newton Peck

    (Egypt Game and Soup, I remember our school librarian reading to us in grade school…..have very fond memories of both of those books!)

    Picture Books—-my personal top 5

    Good Night Moon

    Billy and Milly (would love to find a copy of this…I think I wore out our public library’s copy when I was a little kid)

    Blueberries for Sal

    Green Eggs and Ham or The Lorax

    Muncha, Muncha, Muncha…

    This was a tough challenge….I agree that there are so many wonderful books to choose from….

  22. Jess Blasko says:

    Mike Mulligan was one of those books that I was sure I had read. I knew the title! I knew it was about construction equipment! I knew little boys loved construction equipment and probably loved this book!
    So one day I decided to re-read it. It was totally different and so much better and heartwarming than I remembered (maybe I hadn’t read it after all – oops). I admired the bond between Mary Ann and Mike Mulligan, and I like that such a huge and powerful machine is female with a girly name!

  23. Rachel says:

    Oh boy, this is hard!

    Here are some picture books that I always went back to when I was a kid:

    Max books by Rosemary Wells
    Little Rabbit’s Loose Tooth – Lucy Bate
    The Berenstain Bears
    We’re Back! – Hudson Talbott
    The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales – Jon Sceiszka

    Chapter books:

    Fudge – Judy Blume
    The Boxcar Children – Gertrude C Warner
    Maniac Magee – Jerry Spinelli
    Julie of the Wolves – Jean Craighead George
    Shiloh – Phylliss Reynolds Naylor

  24. Lawrence says:

    Wee Gillis
    Katy No-Pocket
    Roly-Poly Pudding
    Just So Stories
    Black Stallion

  25. David says:

    Top 5 chapter books (in no particular order – choosing just 5 is hard enough!):

    Where the Red Fern Grows
    The Hobbit
    The Jungle Book
    Wee Free Men (or any Tiffany Aching adventure – they’re all fantastic)

  26. CLM says:

    These are today’s favorite chapter books:

    Shadow Castle / Marian Cockrell
    Lark in the Morn and Lark on the Wing / Elfrida Vipont
    Penny Parrish books / Janet Lambert
    Flambards series / K.M. Peyton
    Skating Shoes / Noel Streatfeild
    The Perilous Gard / Elizabeth Marie Pope (although I like her other book just as much)

  27. Chauntelle says:

    I LOVE this book. It is definitely a childhood favorite for me. Thanks for sharing it!

  28. Cathy says:

    I will do it in three levels!

    Picture Books

    The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
    The Ox-Cart Man by Barbara Cooney
    When You are Happy by Eileen Spinelli
    Make Way For Ducklings by Robert McCloskey
    The Old Woman Who Named Things by Cynthia Rylant

    Lower Grade Chapter Books

    Because of Winn Dixie by Kate Dicamillo
    The Penderwicks by Jean Birdsall
    The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Warner
    Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
    Charlotte’s Web by E.B.White

    Middle Grade Chapter Books

    Hope was Here by Joan Bauer
    Book of Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
    Once upon a Marigold by Jean Ferris
    Chains and Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson
    Pennys From Heaven by Jennifer L. Holm

  29. Whitney says:

    This is just hard. Okay, picture books only:

    -“Grandfather Twilight” by Barbara Helen Berger
    -“Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak
    -:The Keris Emerald” by Mary Parke Johnson
    -The Princess on the Nut” by Michelle Nickly
    -“The Monster at the End of this Book” with Grover

    I really want to start naming runners up, but if I do I’ll never stop.

  30. Abcdoris says:

    Wow, this is all so wonderful to read and brings back memories. I love Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag. I think published in 1928…and have not run into anyone else who knows the book. I read it to my kindergarten classes, many years ago.

  31. Anita says:

    I talk about Millions of Cats during the year, on Cat Herding Day. Thanks for your comment.

  32. Ingrid says:

    Goodnight Moon
    Where the Wild Things Are
    Max and Ruby – the first chubby board books
    Blueberries for Sal
    Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

  33. Anne says:

    Well, this great, but impossible! I love them all so much. Every list is wonderful, but my favorite that is not listed is Miss Suzy by Miriam Young, illustrated by Arnold Lobel. It just speaks to my heart. When Suzy is swaying in her tree house under the stars I am as happy as I have ever been inside a book.

    BTW I love this FB page.

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