Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Man And A Horse Show The World

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

The other day driving home in the early afternoon from a trip to the veterinarian either a very old or ill raccoon was starting to cross the road on my right.  Slowing to a crawl I was able to give him a wide berth, hoping to eliminate any fear the creature may have felt.  Looking in my rearview mirror and up ahead in the opposite lane I could see cars coming from both directions.  I put on my brake lights again to warn the driver behind me and flashed my lights at the driver ahead of me.  Almost afraid to look but wanting to know, I watched with a huge sense of relief and overwhelming gratitude to see the two drivers create a corridor of safety for the raccoon.

The more often more of us realize we need to be champions for those who need us the most, the better the entire world will be but most importantly our animal companions will and should be the benefactors.  Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness (Lee & Low Books Inc., October 15, 2016) debut title by Donna Janell Bowman with illustrations by Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award winner Daniel Minter presents the unique story of a man's kindness and the remarkable acts it inspired.  This is a rare book unlike any you may have encountered before or are likely to encounter in the future.

Spring 1889 stretched a blanket of wildflowers over Shelbyville, Tennessee, but William "Doc" Key barely noticed.

On this day a beloved horse Lauretta, a true Arabian saved from a cruel life in a circus, gave birth to a colt.  It was clear the colt was not quite right but Doc Key was not one to ever give up on a life that needed his help.  This gift of Doc Key's began when he was a child.

He grew up as a slave owned by John and Martha Key but they allowed him to be educated with their sons.  His affinity for healing and kindness toward creatures gave him the freedom to visit other farms and assist with their animals.  He learned how to combine natural remedies from his mother.  After the Civil War Doc's skills grew affording him the opportunity to marry, build a home, a hospital for horses and produce Doc's Keystone Liniment.  His continued success as a businessman created the circumstances for him to expand his holdings.  He eventually began to travel selling his medicines and providing entertainment.  This is how he came to own Lauretta.

Doc loved the colt giving it his utmost care.  Not only was the colt curious but it was clever.  It soon could do everything a dog could do.  As a yearling the colt did not want to leave Doc especially after Lauretta died, so Doc invited the horse into his home.  He watched everything Doc did, trying to imitate him.  Eventually he grew into a large stallion, no longer the size to be inside a house.  When he needed to go back to the stable Jim was so upset Doc moved in with him, setting up his office and a cot there.

As you can probably surmise Jim began to accompany Doc when he traveled selling his medicines.  One day when they were at home, Doc's wife made a startling discovery.  This was what led to the education of Jim.  What this horse with this man mastered over the course of years is nothing short of marvelous.  At the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897 the world was able to finally see what Doc and Jim already knew. 

From that day forward Doc and Jim shared Jim's talents with audience after audience.  There were those who did not believe but they could not disprove what kindness multiplied had brought forth in Beautiful Jim Key.  Their show caught the attention of humane societies who began to benefit from the proceeds.  Jim's mathematical skills were uncanny.  He won spelling bees competing with children around the country.  The two became so famous that Doc was able to insist that all people be allowed to sit where they desired in his shows regardless of their race.  Finally at ages seventy-three and seventeen the man and his horse went back to Shelbyville for a well-earned rest.

With her introductory sentence author Donna Janell Bowman takes us back in time to Tennessee.  We are there with Doc at the birth of Jim.  Her careful research is evident in the details included which invite us to know Doc and Jim on a more intimate level.  It's equally important actual quotes are inserted in her narrative.  Readers will be fascinated with the process used to "educate" Jim and the results as recounted by Bowman are nothing short of astounding.  Here are two sample passages.

"He was a knowing colt, I tell you," Doc said.  "He showed me he could fetch, and proceeded to try to do the other tricks the dog could do."  Jim learned to sit, play dead, act sick, and roll over on cue.

When Jim was about a year old, Lauretta died.  Doc was heartbroken, but he also worried about Jim.  The orphaned colt needed looking after night and day.  So Doc coaxed Jim up the porch steps and through the front door of his house.  The young horse made himself right at home.

Rendered masterfully as linoleum block prints painted with acrylic all of the artwork beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case is beautiful.  What is most appealing about the jacket and case illustration, in addition to the color palette, title text design and historical accuracy, is the apparent affection between Beautiful Jim Key and Doc Key.  Here, and throughout the body of the book, the intricate line work is exquisite.  The opening and closing endpapers are a rich rustic red.

On the title page Daniel Minter features the letters spelling  J I M tucked around an apple beneath the title text.  A peaceful pastoral scene across two pages of a barn and a fenced-in pasture with horses grazing provides space for the publication information and dedications.  Many of the pictures span two pages or are on single pages framed in small rich rustic red lines.  There are three single page visuals stretching page edge to page edge.

All of the illustrations glow with a golden light.  Readers will be first drawn to the eyes on the people, full of expression.  Readers will also notice each time Doc is shown his hands are poised in gentleness regardless of what he might be doing.  

One of my many favorite illustrations is a single page picture.  Doc is kneeling in a bed of straw cradling the new colt, Jim, in his arms.  The colt is very thing and weak.  Behind them both, resting but watchful, is Lauretta.  Doc's eyes are closed as he caresses the animal.  This illustration is like looking at a circle of love.

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness written by Donna Janell Bowman with illustrations by Daniel Minter is one of the finest nonfiction books of 2016.  It was chosen as a recommended title by the National Council of Teachers of English Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.  At the conclusion of the book there is a four page intriguing Afterward.  Following that is an extensive listing of quotation sources and author sources like books, newspapers, websites and other sources.

To learn more about author Donna Janell Bowman and illustrator Daniel Minter and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Author Cynthia Leitich Smith highlights this title on her blog, Cynsations, for the cover reveal and a new voice interview with Donna Janell Bowman.  At the publisher's website you can view a teacher's guide, an interview with Donna Janell Bowman and Step Right Up Kindness Pledge printouts are available for students.  Daniel Minter is featured in an earlier post at The Brown Bookshelf: United In Story.

I am thrilled to be participating in another year of reading excellent nonfiction for children.  I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to Alyson Beecher, an outstanding educator who is hosting the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge on her blog, Kid Lit Frenzy.  Be sure you visit each Wednesday to enjoy the other titles selected by participating bloggers.


  1. Donna's book is so moving. I practically bawled through all of it. And boy do we need Doc's pledge of kindness to all more than ever now!! :)

    1. You are completely right Maria. I never knew about this wonderful man and his work. I am so thankful for authors and illustrators who bring these people to our attention.