Review of small press and independent books.
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Virginia Lee Burton, 1939, Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel; illustrated by the author; current edition published 2007 by Frances Lincoln Children's Books.
This is an American classic that Little Troubleblossom has suddenly fallen in love with. Mike Mulligan is the owner-operator of a steam-driven excavator called Mary Anne, who is subtly anthropomorphised with an eye in the top corner of her bucket and a very expressive 'mouth' provided by its hinged jaw. He maintains, but has never been entirely sure, that she can dig as much in a day as a hundred men can in a week. Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne have worked on all the major civil engineering projects of early 20th-century America together, but now they have become obsolete: modern excavators have taken over, and nobody is hiring steam shovels any more. Then Mike Mulligan comes up with one last challenge, to prove that he and Mary Anne still have something to give: they turn away from the great civil engineering projects where nobody wants them, and track out to the tiny town of Popperville, to offer to dig the cellar for the new town hall between sunrise and sunset... only to end up in a completely unforeseen pickle which leads to a decidedly eccentric happy ending.
The text is very American, with railroads and automobiles and gasoline - and does anyone here know what a 'selectman' is, because I'm hanged if I do? - but it rings like a tuning-fork and swings like a jazzman from beginning to end, with just the right amount of repetition and variation, and makes beautiful bedtime reading. The illustrations, which look like a mixture of paint and coloured pencil as far as I in my ignorance can tell, are very old-fashioned (well, obviously) but intricate and vigorous: the one of Mike Mulligan covering his eyes in horror as he and Mary Anne look over the rim of a gravel pit to the graveyard of scrapped steam shovels below is particularly striking. Worth getting for any child who's got a liking for heavy plant, and that seems to be most of them.
When in doubt, go to Wikipedia. This article tells you more than you're likely ever to need to know about what a selectman is.
I just had a look at some of the pictures in this book (thanks to a bit of googling). They're charming. I'd have loved this as a child.
My word. So I was roughly correct in glossing it as 'town councillor', but specifically in New England - no wonder Popperville looks the way it does. Ah... I just picked the book up to look at the pictures, and now Madam wants it again...
One thing I particularly love about the illustrations is the detail: Virginia Lee Burton had obviously made a serious study of civil engineering. In the picture where Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are digging a canal, there's a big caisson at either end of the works to keep the sea out until they're finished, and next to the caisson at the end they haven't reached yet is a little pontoon from which work on the caisson is still proceeding. In the following picture, where they're cutting a railway, there are two little surveyors, one with a theodolite and one with a pole, laying out the route. Compared to some picture books I've seen, where the illustrator doesn't actually know how an excavator bucket is attached to the jib, and heavy plant doesn't leave tracks on people's lawns, this is truly wonderful.
Yes, it's wonderful stuff, and children really appreciate it (or I know I did). I used to love complex drawings full of interesting detail. Hated bright cartoony stuff.