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

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

The 19th century was a brutal time for animals, but formerly-enslaved William “Doc” Key believed that kindness had power. He determined to prove it by “educating” a once-sickly, crooked-legged colt in 1889—complete with reading, writing, and math. Despite racial prejudice and skepticism, Doc and Beautiful Jim Key ultimately fueled the humane movement, and inspired millions of people to be kinder to animals.

Scroll down for more information about Step Right Up.

Here’s the unofficial, super casual TX Bluebonnet Q&A Interview, with bonus advice to young writers. See the Texas Bluebonnet Award Resource page for the official interview and other helpful resources tied to Step Right Up.

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

Video sneak peek into my research for Step Right Up

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

Young fan signing the kindness pledge at ALA.

 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

Have fun with horse-related or animal-related crafts made from paper bags, popsicle sticks, paper towel tubes, etc. Peruse the internet or craft books for fun ideas.

Check out news of the upcoming movie featuring Morgan Freeman.

Click here for interviews with me about writing Step Right Up

School Library Journal recommends Step Right Up for Black History Month.

Learn more about Beautiful Jim Key on my blog. Begin here with an article about how I think Jim was taught and the current science behind animal intelligence.

Check out this FAQ where you ‘ll find cool details about Doc and Jim that do not appear in the book.

Watch Rick Lamb’s interview with Mim Eichler Rivas, author of the adult book Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of the World’s Smartest Horse

Reviews and Accolades for Step Right Up:

Step Right Up has been nominated for many state book awards, including:
NEW!  2020-21 California Young Reader Medal nominee
Texas Bluebonnet Award
Kansas’ William Allen White Award
Louisiana’s Young Reader’s Choice Awards
Tennessee’s Volunteer State Book Award
Indiana’s Young Hoosier Book Award, in the intermediate category
Utah’s Beehive Book Award 
South Dakota Prairie Pasque Book Award———WINNER!

NEW! Step Right Up has won the South Dakota Book Award (Prairie Pasque)!

NEW! Step Right Up has been named to the 2019 Texas Topaz Reading List.

SRU has won the 2016 Writer’s League of Texas Book Award in the picture book category!

Southern Poverty Law Center has recommended Step Right Up in the Fall 2017 issue of their educational magazine, Teaching Tolerance.

SRU has earned a Carter G. Woodson Award Honor from the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)!

2017 Orbis Pictus Recommended Book by NCTE!

SRU is starred as Outstanding Merit in the Bank Street College of Education Best Children’s Books of the Year list.

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.

2016 Booklist Editor’s Choice

Lit Littles Best Picture Books of 2016

Essex Books Black History Month Recommendation

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.)”

The fine folks at the Gathering Books blog featured STEP RIGHT UP in their Nonfiction Wednesday post, April 5, 2017. excerpt—”…a remarkable story of resilience, compassion, unusual friendship – and just staggering brilliance, it will blow anyone’s mind away.”


Click here to request an autographed copy of this book from Book People.