Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

Illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low Books, October 2016)

A Horse that can read, write, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought until former slave and self-taught veterinarian Dr. William Key, with his “educated” horse Beautiful Jim Key, proved that, with kindness, anything is possible. Over nine years of exhibiting across the country, Doc and “Jim” broke racial barriers, fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to step right up and choose kindness.

 See Lee and Low Book’s Step Right Up page.


Illustrator Daniel Minter discusses kindness while demonstrating his illustration process for Step Right Up.

Video sneak peak into my research for Step Right Up


Download the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge in black and white or Color.

 During the years William “Doc” Key and his horse Beautiful Jim Key performed, spreading the message about kindness, an estimated two million people—especially children—signed the Jim Key Pledge to be kind to animals. We’ve brought the pledge back, and updated it to be more inclusive of people, too. Please consider using the new Step Right Up Kindness Pledge (above) when reading the book to your children or your students. Our world needs a lot more kindness these days.

Download the step-right-up-teachers-guide-2016

Click here for interviews with me about writing Step Right Up

Learn more about Beautiful Jim Key on my blog. Begin here.


Reviews and Accolades for Step Right Up:

2017 ALA/ALSC Notable Children’s Book

2017 Essex Recommended books for Black History Month

Shelf Awareness review—excerpt: “Donna Janell Bowman and illustrator Daniel Minter tell his amazing true story with energy, heart and stunning linoleum-block prints.”

2016 Cybils finalist!   excerpt: Step Right Up is a story that you will keep going back to read and recommend.”

Betsy Bird’s “Best Nonfiction Picture Books” list of 2016.

2017 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book by NCTE!

2016 Booklist Editor’s Choice

Horn Book Review excerpt: “Bowman’s steady, natural narration pays close attention to the bond between Doc and Jim, including humorous details of Jim’s behavior, while incorporating the social conditions facing an emancipated black man in the latter part of the nineteenth century and Doc’s insistence on integrating the spaces where he and Jim performed.”

Starred Review from KirkusExcerpt: “Minter’s acrylic-painted linoleum-block prints combine with Bowman’s story of a former slave who trained a brilliant horse for a memorable book. . . . An incredible story that ought to be widely known—a must-read.”

Starred Review from BooklistExcerpt: “Stunning hand-painted linoleum block print illustrations by Coretta Scott King Award winner Minter are awash with color and light, as from a stained glass window, and capture the nuances of Doc and Jim’s life together perfectly. The narrative’s quiet tone conveys a sense of respect for Doc’s life and legacy, while back matter offers an extended biography, archival photos of Doc and Jim, and source notes. This beautiful, picture-book homage to Doc and Jim is nothing short of enthralling.”

Starred Review from Publishers WeeklyExcerpt: “Themes of racial injustice and the harsh treatment of animals offer a poignant supplement to the main narrative. . . .Though debut author Bowman focuses on Doc’s relationship with Jim, a substantial afterword will leave children eager to learn more about Doc Key’s remarkable life, including his reluctant service work with Confederate forces during the Civil War and his efforts to free the enslaved.”

School Library JournalExcerpt: “Minter’s linoleum block prints, painted with acrylic, add the perfect historic feel to an incredible true story.”

Junior Library Guild Selection. 

The Missourian—Excerpt: “The tale of a horse with extraordinary intelligence, and the bond he shared with his doting owner is an inspiring must-read. “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness,” by Donna Janell Bowman, is a true tale that’s amazing with bold, detailed illustrations by Daniel Minter.”

What We Do All Day Blog— Excerpt:Doc and Jim toured the country, showing off Jim’s skills. Along the way Doc stood up to racism and the skepticism of others, teaching that it was kindness that inspired Jim to learn. This is a truly fascinating historical story and the illustrations are spectacular.”

SCBWI 2016 Official Reading List

Curious City “Best Of” list

Bookworms and Owls “5 star” review

A Book and a Pie blog—Excerpt: “I adored reading this to my boys. The message was loud and clear. And the art work! It’s a perfect match to the book. I will be reading this to them again and again. Patience, boys. Kindness, boys. And education.”

The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books— Excerpt: “…a smooth and well-sourced account of a fascinating phenomenon with some significant cultural implications. Minter’s stylish linocut illustrations have a robust period flavor and a warm yellow tone that suggests historic documents. An extensive four-page afterword gives more detail about man and horse; end matter includes sources for quotations and for the author’s research in books, newspapers, and websites.”

Capitol Choices Noteworthy List—Excerpt: “This fascinating story about a slave-turned-successful-veterinarian and his genius horse who toured the country in the early 1900s teaches the value of perseverance and the necessity of kindness. Minter’s warm and detailed paintings work perfectly with the text to tell the story of this unbelievable duo.”

Johnson County (Missouri) Library “Best Winter Reading” recommended list. (Listen to their radio program. Step Right Up is discussed from 15:37-18:15)

Librarian’s Quest Blog review— excerpt: “one of the finest nonfiction books of 2016.

2016 Unique Biographies for Kids – School Library Journal-Betsy Bird

Unpacking Picture Book Power blog review—excerpt: “Since this process [Cybils judging] began, one book held its own among my reading stack. Regardless of its eventual status in our deliberations, I want to be sure readers are aware of it…   “…you need to read it and share it, then keep it available for return visits by readers of many ages. Doc Key’s examples of kindness, education, and gentleness toward all provide much-needed inspiration, now more than ever.” 

Austin American Statesman review—excerpt: “...this biography offers immense fodder for further discussion. Author Donna Janell Bowman grew up on a ranch outside of Austin; her well-researched telling of Doc and Jim’s story is augmented by illustrator Daniel Minter’s warm acrylic paintings. (Ages 7-12; older readers will enjoy Bowman’s detailed, fact-filled epilogue about Doc.)”

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