Saturday, December 22, 2007

Give credit where credit is due

One of my favorite books when I was growing up was Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton. Recently, I've been reading the book with my son... and I have to say it's an incredible joy to watch him revel in the same story I love.

If you've read Burton's classic story (and chances are you have)... you may remember that Mary Anne (the steam shovel) gets stuck in the cellar and can't get out. I've always thought that the resolution to the problem is the most memorable aspect of the book.

Take a look at the paragraph where the idea is suggested by the (unnamed) little boy:

"Why couldn't we leave Mary Anne in the cellar and build the new town hall above her? Let her be the furnace for the new town hall* and let Mike Mulligan be the janitor. Then you wouldn't have to buy a new furnace, and we could pay Mike Mulligan for digging the cellar in just one day."

*Acknowledgments to Dickie Birkenbush.

Go check your copy, you'll see the asterisk. It's included in every edition of the book ever published.

Who is Dickie Birkenbush, you ask? When Burton was working on the book in 1938, she had literally written herself into a corner and didn't know how to get Mary Anne out of the Popperville town cellar. She shared her dilemma during dinner with family friends. Dick, then a child of twelve, suggested the ingenious solution of turning Mary Anne into a furnace.

In gratitude, Burton credited her young collaborator. What I think is so impressive about it, is that she did it right in the actual text, not in the acknowledgments. What an amazing way to say thank you and to give credit where it was due. (Unfortunately, she misspelled his name... the correct spelling is actually Berkenbush.)

So, in an age where plagiarism is rampant and and children's ideas aren't always taken seriously... I find what Virginia Lee Burton did to be inspiring.

To read more about Dick Berkenbush, now in his eighties, see this article from 2006 in the Boston Globe. There was also a great article about Virginia Lee Burton published in 2002 in School Library Journal. And, Houghton Mifflin, the publisher of Mike Mulligan, has a website dedicated to this classic book.

And if you haven't read Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel recently, go pick it up again. It's just as good as the first time you read it.


  1. We love Mike Mulligan, too--but I had never seen the asterisk/acknowledgement until now! An argument against reading picture books from anthologies, in this case the Twentieth Century Children's Book Treasury (ed. Janet Shulman) -- although I have to say, this anthology goes with us on every trip we take with the kids, and it's a lifesaver. Why did they omit the asterisk in the anthology, I wonder?? Anyway, it's a great story--both of them. Thank you!

  2. I'm sorry, I signed in with a Nickname/URL and it doesn't seem to be working.

  3. that was totally one of my favorite books when i was a kid. thanks for the fascinating info about it that i was hitherto ignorant of!

  4. Anamaria- That's very interesting that the asterisk isn't in the 20th Century Children's Book Treasury. I love that book... actually your comment inspired me to write a post on it.

    Jenn- You're welcome! It was one of my favorite books when I was little too. I only noticed the asterisk recently.

  5. That's a wonderful anecdote! I had no idea. Thanks for sharing!

  6. I'm another one who only noticed the asterisk recently. I don't recall it at all from the version I had as a kid 30+ years ago, but it is in the version my son has.

  7. Lisa- Glad you enjoyed it!

    Limpy99- I don't remember the asterisk from when I was a kid either... but the copy that I'm reading to my son is the same one I owned when I was little, so I can't claim that it wasn't there!

  8. My copy of Mike Mulligan is a Weekly Reader Children's Book Club publication. I read it to my son in the 70's. I noticed the asterisk in the last two weeks as I read it to my granddaughter. Realized I lived in the computer age and found this sight. What an endearing story.

  9. Thanks for writing this. I just finished reading the book to my daughter and was curious about the asterisk.

  10. Aaron- so glad to provide the information. It's one of my favorite stories. I hope your daughter enjoyed it!