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Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

by Virginia Lee Burton


Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a story about love and loyalty in the face of a changing world.

Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel Mary Anne are a great team. But when newer, more advanced shovels come along, no one wants to hire Mike and Mary Anne anymore–until Mike hears that the nearby town of Popperville needs someone to dig the cellar of their new town hall. The pair finish the job before sundown. But how will they get Mary Anne out of the cellar that she has just dug? And if they don’t, will they get paid? While this greatly perplexes everyone at first, a little boy comes up with a brilliant solution.

Read aloud video by Read to My Children

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion


Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel raises questions about the nature and morality of loyalty. Mike has the option of replacing Mary Anne with a more advanced shovel, but he remains loyal to his longtime partner instead, even though this loyalty means the pair might be out of work. Is Mike’s choice admirable, particularly if we assume that Mary Anne is a sentient being that cares for Mike and knows that Mike cares for her? Is loyalty inherently admirable, or does it depend upon what one is loyal to? Some argue that loyalty is a virtue in itself, while others bring up examples such as sports teams or even gangs to demonstrate that the value of loyalty might be dependent upon the object of loyalty.

The book also brings up questions about reasons for loyalty. Answers to this question range from how loyalty benefits society as a whole to how it benefits individuals. Since loyalty between people is usually mutually beneficial, could it be considered selfish? Are people loyal to others because they owe them a debt of gratitude for being loyal, or because loyalty helps build strong relationships, which is something of value? All of this can allow an adult to lead a discussion with children on their experiences and views on loyalty–whether they think loyalty is important and what it means to be loyal. This can push the children to question themselves on the concept of loyalty, reflect on how it is presented and carried out in their everyday life, and assess whether and when they think it is right.


This book also raises questions about the nature and morality of love. The book states, “Mike loved Mary Anne”–what kind of love is there between the two? Is it love as union (having a desire to share an identity and well-being with another person, even if results in personal sacrifices), as robust concern (caring about another person for their sake and always acting to promote what would be best for their well-being), or as valuing (i.e. recognizing the unique value in the beloved and responding to it or wishing to give value to the beloved through caring)? Similar to loyalty, questions arise regarding when love is admirable or even justified–is it always, or does it depend upon what or whom you love? Are there ever times when it is acceptable, or even admirable, to stop loving someone? If that can be justified, does that mean that we love people based solely upon their properties (e.g., because they are funny or smart or attractive)? Or perhaps properties are the reason we begin to love people, but they become less important as time passes. Alternatively, there might be children who feel that despite the book stating “Mike loved Mary Anne,” Mike really did not love her. Rather than dismissing this opinion, it might be worthwhile to discuss with the group how you show love, what kinds of people are worthy of love, and whether there are specific tasks that one must do for another person if they truly love them. This conversation can refer back to the book by asking the children to identify specific points in the book where they think an action consisted of love, and where they might think it did not.

When discussing the topics of loyalty and love to children, it might be helpful to discuss them together as they are inherently interlinked. For instance, a motivating factor of being loyal to someone may be that you love them, and vice versa. Moreover, being loyal often results in one having at least some affinity towards the person, organization, or cause. In this way, many questions can be discussed with both loyalty and love in mind. When is it okay to not be loyal or not to love someone anymore? Do you tend to be loyal to those you love? For what reasons? How does one distinguish between whether it is loyalty or love that drives one to take on certain actions on behalf of others? Are the two always intertwined? Can you have one without the other?

The instructor can also initiate questions regarding the similarities in nature between loyalty and love. Do you think they require similar characteristics? Do you think that being loyal and loving someone both require that you be irrational at times, doing things that you would otherwise not do (perhaps because it’s wrong)? In this way, perhaps love and loyalty both clash with morality. (This may be slightly more challenging and would work better with an older group of children.) These questions will allow the children to think about the ethics of loyalty and love simultaneously such that they will further gain critical skills in correlative analysis.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion


Mike remains loyal to Mary Anne throughout the story, even when he has the option to replace her with a potentially better machine.

  1. Why does Mike stick with Mary Anne even though there are better machines available?
  2. Is it good that he did? Do you admire him for it?
  3. If Mary Anne didn’t do a good job digging, would you still admire Mike for being loyal to Mary Anne and refusing to use another machine that will build better houses for all of us to live in?
  4. Who are you loyal to? Why are you loyal to that person?
  5. What can you be loyal to other than people?
  6. How do you show that you are loyal to someone?
  7. Have you ever had to break your loyalty to someone?
  8. Is it ever okay to stop being loyal to someone? What reasons would make that okay?
  9. Is it still good to be loyal to someone or something that does bad things?
  10. Why is loyalty important?


Mike loves Mary Anne.

  1. Even though the book tells us that Mike loves Mary Anne, do you think he really does?
  2. What’s the difference between liking and loving?
  3. What kind of things did Mike do to show that he loves Mary Anne, or does not love Mary Anne?
  4. Who do you love, and who loves you?
  5. Why do you love them, and why do they love you?
  6. Is it okay to stop loving someone?
  7. How do you show someone you love them? How do people show you they love you?
  8. Is it still good to love someone or something that does bad things?
  9. Is it ever okay to do something bad for someone you love?
  10. Why is love important?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Carly Yu and Mina Wolf. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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