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Children's Corner: Big birthdays for two children's classics

Two children's classics celebrate birthdays this year. "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" turns 70, while "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is 40.

Here's a closer look at these books and how they came to be:

Although she won the 1943 Caldecott Medal for "The Little House," author-illustrator Virginia Lee Burton may be celebrated for her picture books about vehicles. In addition to "Mike Mulligan," there's her tractor book, "Katy and the Big Snow," "Maybelle the Cable Car" and "Choo Choo: The Story of the Engine Who Ran Away."

But Burton, who would celebrate her 100th birthday on Aug. 31, didn't deliberately set out to become a vehicle specialist. Her first book for children actually recounted the adventures of a dust bunny. As Anita Silvey details in her book, "100 Best Books for Children," that manuscript was rejected by 13 publishers; one of them suggested that Burton instead spend time discovering what books her own two sons would enjoy reading, and that's how her vehicle "specialty" evolved.

Of all of her books, Burton is best known for "Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel" (Houghton Mifflin, $16, ages 3-7). The story of how Mike Mulligan creates a new life for his beloved but outdated steam shovel, Mary Anne, has resonated with generations of children and adults. The book's conclusion — where Mary Anne is put to work to heat the Popperville town hall, whose foundation she and Mike Mulligan have just dug — is both appropriate and highly satisfying.

Interestingly, Burton had trouble trying to figure out how "Mike Mulligan" should end. Silvey notes in "100 Best Books for Children" that one day, when Burton was reading the manuscript to a group of children, one of them, a boy named Dickie Berkenbush, came up with a perfect ending. Burton was thrilled, and gave Berkenbush credit in a footnote, although she misspelled his last name as "Birkenbush."

Berkenbush, who died earlier this year at the age of 84, was proud of the role he played. In a 2006 interview with The Boston Globe, Berkenbush, who once served as fire and police chief in West Newbury, Mass. — the town that served as the model for Popperville — said his idea for the ending came from the fact that his father owned a steam-heated garage.

The wonderfully energetic illustrations of "Mike Mulligan" perfectly balance the story and spotlight Burton's lifelong interest in graphic design, Barbara Elleman writes in her book, "Virginia Lee Burton: A Life in Art." While the illustrations have a texture that looks like colored pencil, Burton actually created them from watercolor, ink and graphics, according to Elleman, who also wrote the introduction for "Mike Mulligan and More: A Virginia Lee Burton Treasury" (Houghton Mifflin, $20).

Young vehicle enthusiasts, meanwhile, particularly enjoy the endpapers, with their careful diagrams of the parts of the steam shovel.

Overall, however, it's the cheerful tone and appealing characters that make "Mike Mulligan" such a standout. In fact, Elleman says, "Mike Mulligan" highlights a theme found throughout Burton's work and even her own life — "survival through change."

Author-illustrator Eric Carle also celebrates two birthdays this year — his own 80th birthday (June 25), and the 40th anniversary of the publication of his most popular book, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" (Putnam, $21.99, ages 3-7).

For decades, children have loved the story of the caterpillar who eats his way through a week's worth of food, then spins himself into a cocoon, and finally emerges as a beautiful butterfly. The story's happy ending captivates young readers, who also love the brightness of Carle's trademark collage illustrations and enjoy the way he uses die-cut pages to move his story along.

But, as Silvey writes in "100 Best Books for Children," Carle's initial idea was to write about a worm; he planned to use holes cut through pages to show the worm's progress through all kinds of foods until it grew very fat. Carle's editor, however, wasn't enthusiastic about a green worm as a protagonist and instead suggested he use a caterpillar.

Carle's first children's book actually was another classic, "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?," written by Bill Martin. But Carle had longed to do a book that used pages of different shapes and sizes, and thus was born "The Very Hungry Caterpillar."

Over the years, Carle has published a number of other wonderful books, but "Caterpillar" remains his most cherished. Since its publication, "the book has sold a copy a minute somewhere in the world, more than 20 million altogether," Silvey writes.

Seven years ago, Carle offered children's-book lovers another gift, opening the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. For more information, go to:

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at