If You Give a Kid a Steam Shovel…

Not long ago, looking through the shelves for books to use in a mantel decoration scheme, I came across a slender paperback copy of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. Mark and Jim were out on a Saturday Boys’ Retail Run, so I slipped the book from the shelf and sat down and read it in the quiet house.

First published in 1939, still a favorite…

And, oh, the memories that well-loved book evoked. I remembered my mother reading a battered library copy of Mike Mulligan to my younger brother and me…that would have been around 62 years ago or so.

Cap’n Kangaroo read Mike on his show, more than once. And it’s the first book Miss Binney, the brand new kindergarten teacher in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest, reads to her first class. (Ramona, of course, quickly pipes up with an inappropriate question: how does Mike go to the bathroom, stuck down there digging the cellar all day? And so Miss Binney’s REAL teacher education begins.)

And I read Mike Mulligan to Matt and to Jim. Mark loves this memory: it is evening; Jim is maybe two years old, in footy pajamas and sweetly sleepy after a bath. We sit in the lounge chair by the fireplace in our long ago home, Jim curled up  on my lap, and I open Mike Mulligan and begin reading. I begin reading carefully—Jim was the kind of kid who memorized the text and called me on deviating or taking shortcuts.

And then there is a soft rustling as Matt, 15, and his friends come in. They settle themselves quietly near the TV set, sprawling on the floor, chins in hands.

“I LOVE this book,” whispers Rob, and Jim shushes him, and I read on, reading a story that captivates toddlers and teens—and tinsel-heads—alike.

Mike is a classic tale, one of the 100 top books teachers read to their classes. Technology aside, the story is timeless.


Interesting, that timelessness; Virginia Lee Burton wrote the book in 1939, when the country was recovering from the Great Depression. It’s the story of a man looking for work. It’s the story of how technology changes and what happens when your tools become obsolete. It’s a tale of ingenuity and creativity, and it’s a tale about how one person’s ironclad determination can cause real change…even in the hearts of greedy, grasping people.

Reading about Mike and Mary Anne made me nostalgic—it made me miss the unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book with a child, and having that child love the book I’ve chosen.

Maybe that’s why discovering the little free library in Westview Park was so compelling.


Around the corner and down the block from our house, the Westview School once stood. The building was empty when we moved in here; we watched, a few years later, when its demo took place. We were not the only ones; people thronged to watch the building come down.

They were people who’d gone to school there; they were people whose parents had gone to school there. They were people who worked there, too. It was a beloved place, and as the wrecking ball took out walls, stories circulated, memories were shared.

A year or so after the demo, the County’s Parks Association established Westview Park on the site, with paved paths, lots of green space, and a marble table and benches that cry out for unhurried games of chess. There’s a tunnel to crawl through, and there are stationary canoes that would-be adventurers can paddle.

And most recently, the County’s library system has installed a Little Free Library.


Little Free Library (littlefreelibrary.org) is a huge, non-profit organization these days; they have inspired the installation of more than 150,000 Little Free Libraries in over 100 countries. The libraries vary in size and decoration, but they are all outdoor, and their motto, their raisin d’être is this: Take a book. Leave a book.

This Little Free Library is carved into a tree… (see more here: https://littlefreelibrary.org/57-jaw-dropping-libraries/)

This movement came about in 2009, when Todd Bol of Hudson, Wisconsin, built a small wooden schoolhouse in his mother’s memory. She had been a teacher, and she was an inveterate reader.

Bol filled his little schoolhouse with books and mounted it on a pole in his front yard. Passersby were delighted. They took books, and some came back and left books.

People loved Bol’s idea, and he wound up making several more little schoolhouses for other people to mount in THEIR yards, to fill with THEIR books to share.

Then Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin at Madison teamed up with Bol, and they made the “take a book, leave a book” vision into a concrete plan.They were inspired by Andrew Carnegie, who had vowed to fund 2,508 public libraries in English-speaking countries. Brooks and Bol pledged to establish more than 2,508 Little Free Libraries by the end of 2013.

By August, 2012, they had exceeded their goal. That year, with 4,000 Little Free Libraries established, the organization officially became a 501 (c) (3).

When Todd Bol died of pancreatic cancer four years ago, in October 2018, 75,000 Little Free Libraries were thriving.

This year, there are over 150,000 registered Little Free Libraries in more than 115 countries worldwide.

When I walked by the one in Westview Park, with its art on the outside and treasure within, I was instantly charmed.


A trip to the library is the best kind of treasure hunt; on any given day, I might discover words that lift me up, and I might read words that shake the ground beneath my feet. I might find a voice that speaks clearly and directly just to me, or a book that makes me laugh out loud, or a book that helps me cook the world’s best gluten-free biscuits. The vast, unlimited potential of it! I remind myself every week to be utterly  and completely grateful.

The Little Free Libraries are not nearly so vast, of course, but their tininess, their 24/7 access, their lack of rules or restrictions, enhance the possibility of treasure. Anyone can open the doors of that little wooden box, open the doors and pull out a book and take it home…and keep it forever, if that’s what they want to do. If you need a book, the Little Free Library says, please, please, please take one of mine.

We noticed that the Little Free Library at Westview would be full one day, and the next, the treasure would be halved. Someone was joyfully gathering its riches.

So James and I committed to donating three books each, every month.


The Little Free Library: a chance to share books we cherish with children we’ll never know.

James and I both order from a used book site, where, every ten books or so, we get rewarded with a free book. We figured we can use the free book for the little libraries, too.

The first month of Westview’s Little Free Library, James ordered three of his favorite Redwall books. He discovered the kingdom of Redwall when he was a young, precocious reader who had trouble fitting in with the kids in his class. But he felt very comfortable with the denizens of Redwall—stouthearted mice and moles and badgers who were threatened and harassed by conniving voles and worm-hearted weasels. Redwall’s creator, Brian Jacques, created a rich, deep fantasy land, full of valor and loyalty, conspiracies and treachery. Mr. Jacques wrote 18 Redwall adventures, I think, before he died. James collected them all.

He has long since traded the gentle fantasies of Redwall for the grittier sagas of JRR Tolkien and Robert Jordan, but James remembers well their allure. His three favorite Redwall stories arrived, and, on my evening walk, I tucked them into the little library.

The next day, the first volume was gone. The day after that, there were no Redwall books left.

“Yes!” said Jim: a childhood passion passed along.


I pondered long, that first month, over which books to order. Finally, I settled on The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. My sister-in-law, Mary, a children’s lit expert, introduced me to the story of Milo, who was always bored and never content…until he discovered a mysterious tollbooth in his bedroom one day. Milo drove his little car through the turnstile right into another country…one where the land of words was at war with the land of numbers, and Milo, unremarkable, drooping Milo, stepped up and became a hero.

The Phantom Tollbooth is funny. It’s that wonderful kind of book that enthralls child readers and tickles adult readers, and during the ten years I taught middle school, I read it each year to my sixth grade home room.

Mary shared that book with me, and I shared it with my students, and thirty-five or so years later, I put a copy in the little library at Westview.

It too was gone the next day.

I also put Roger Duvoisin’s Petunia in there—subversive, I know; that clear message: Reading is GOOD! Reading is IMPORTANT!

And I added a copy of CDB by William Steig, a book written completely in letters that, when read aloud, make sentences (O U Q-T! U R A B-U-T!) That was a book I found in the children’s section of the Book Nook, the wonderful bookstore I worked in during college and after. I took CDB home and my mother fell in love with it, giggling over its silly sayings and pictures, giving copies to my nieces and nephews.

I walked through the park the next morning. CDB and Petunia were gone, gone, gone.

Art on the outside, books within…


James ordered three more Redwall books. I ordered an omnibus of Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time series, Ted Arnold’s No Jumping on the Bed, and Ronald Dahl’s The BFG.

We rushed the books down to the park when they landed on the front steps a few days later. Once again, they disappeared rapidly.


Tonight I got a notification that the books I ordered for some kid’s Hallowe’en reading (Bunnicula, Dahl’s The Witches, and Allard’s Miss Nelson is Missing) will be here by Friday. When I looked the other night, the Little Free Library was full of grown-up books. I can’t wait to slip some kids’ books, books with a gently scary (but safely resolving) little seasonal edge, back in there.


Mark says, darkly, “I hope KIDS are taking those books. I hope someone isn’t taking them to Half Price Books and getting cash.”

But I have faith. For one thing, I don’t think HPB is going to fork out a ton of money for those gently used volumes. But for another, I often see a mom and her four kids, one in a stroller, the others running ahead, yelling back to her, sometimes zipping back and forth on small bicycles, doing doughnuts around their stroller-tethered mama, heading for the park. Maybe those kids are reading the books. Or maybe it’s the young dad with the slender, serious, long-limbed daughter who skips at his side…maybe they are opening those Plexiglas doors, examining the books left behind, making important decisions about what to take home.

Kids zip through that park, running, riding, throwing, yelling…and maybe, when they go home, they take a book to illuminate a quieter hour.

The unique, piquant pleasure of sharing a book that a child might love. I’m already thinking Anne of Green Gables, Dr. Seuss, Kate Di Camillo…and I’m awaiting my November books, which include a board book copy of Mike Mulligan. I think that book must STILL be beloved; the regular volumes, hard cover and paperback, are out of stock. But some young mom and some digger-loving kid might enjoy the hard-to-destroy board book copy.

I hope so, anyway; I like to think of that.


What’s your favorite book to share with a kid?




4 thoughts on “If You Give a Kid a Steam Shovel…

  1. Kim Allen

    How wonderful you are doing this. I can’t help but think you are developing a relationship of sorts with someone (s), who is now clued in that something worth discovering is happening on a regular basis ! I admire how literary and well read you are. I a while back was listening to a grandmother talk about reading to her grand children and sent both me and her a copy of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle , a favorite of mine in elementary school.

      1. Kimberly Allen

        My favorite story of hers is the boy who wouldn’t wash and so she planted pumpkin seeds on him while he was sleeping and the vines grow so plentiful he could not leave his bedroom. That was a coveted book in the Elementary school library so when I returned it I often had to wait to read the stories again. I am amazed at the titles that you retain and how well read you are. Another favorite children’s book is one I recently bought for an adult. I would read it to the children at church. It really moved me. It is generally about an animal who is trying to find their place in their life. The ending made me cry every time because it is so powerful, I could feel it. The author escapes me right now. But Desmond Tutu wrote the forward.

  2. 1st off another well written an interesting post. Secondly I had to look up most of the books that you mentioned and the one that Kim mentioned. Thirdly I think Little Free Libraries are the coolest thing. So much so that I applied for and now have approval from my rural municipality to put one on public property next to the mailboxes. It’s not built yet but you can be sure that I will post about it when I do it. Not only does it encourage readers but it keeps book circulating which I think is such a phenomenal thing. I love how you and James are using such intention as you insert books into that public space. Bless your souls.

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