Book Connections & Activities In One Place

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on educational systems. Now that kids are learning remotely and educators are scrambling to adjust to online platforms, I want to make it as easy as possible for my books to be useful. To that end, I have compiled some of the most helpful book-specific connections in one place.
* Please note that it is a violation of copyright law to publicly share recorded readings of my books without the written consent of each publisher. That said, many publishers are making temporary, limited exceptions. Refer to each publisher’s guidelines.

King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara
by Donna Janell Bowman
illustrated by Adam Gustavson
Peachtree Publishers

Stay tuned for a temporary video recording of me reading the book in its entirety on a Peachtree Publishing platform.

-Teacher’s Guide, including Reader’s Theatre and glossary of French terms
-Here are some literature connections and critical thinking activities for kids
-Read an 1859 newspaper account of Blondin’s first performance (Primary source)
-More information, including the select bibliography, quote sources, and audio pronunciations of French terms
-Read about how I figured out Blondin’s engineering process
-STEAM companion (shortcut) with engineering and physics terms and simple definitions
-Simplest physics demonstration of balance and center of gravity
-Read about my research with primary and secondary sources for King of the Tightrope
-About the Author’s Note and Afterword for King of the Tightrope
-Here’s one of many fun online experiments for kids to demonstrate a tightrope walker’s center-of-gravity and balance
-Video animation of the science behind how a tightrope walker balances
-Print an image of the Great Blondin, tape it to a pencil and photograph him tightrope-walking in fun places

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words
by Donna Janell Bowman
illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Peachtree Publishers

-Watch the book trailer here 
-Read about what sparked the duel between Abe Lincoln and James Shields
-Peruse the curriculum guide, complete with character education tie-ins
-Here’s where you can see the Select Sources and Quotation Sources
-Read a transcript of Lincoln’s naughty Rebecca letter that led to him being challenged
-See Lincoln’s handwritten note to his “second” with his dueling terms
-Compare the account of Lincoln’s “second” Dr. E. Merryman against James Shields’ second J. Whiteside.
-Men used to settle disagreements with duels. Crazy, right? Here’s more about it.
-In the 19th century, the Gentlemen’s Code of Conduct was supposed to ensure that honor was maintained
-Learn how I researched and wrote this book
-James Shields had a remarkable life. Learn more here.
-See the working timeline for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words. Note how far back my research stretched
-See more about Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words here

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness
by Donna Janell Bowman
illustrated by Daniel Minter
Lee and Low Books

Read Lee and Low’s Temporary Virtual Read Aloud Guidelines
(A few people previously violated copyright laws by posting videos of themselves reading the entire book on YouTube.)

-Watch the illustrator process video
-Watch the author video for TX Bluebonnet Award nomination
-Take the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge
-See the Curriculum Guide here
-Here’s a Q&A about my research process for Step Right Up
-Q&A about Doc and Jim
-Read how I think it was possible for Beautiful Jim Key to be taught so much
-Learn about activism for kids
-Find some fun horse crafts for kids. You can start here. 
-Read about the National Humane Education Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA)


Kindness Comes Back to Me–How an Iowa Class Made Me Smile

Like most authors, my goal is to write stories that resonate with young readers and adult readers alike.

In the case of Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, I hoped that kids would be inspired when they learned about how one person (and one horse) can make a profound difference. And about how a simple act of kindness can spread far and wide.

What I didn’t expect were the many ways that the message would come back to me since the book’s release, like a kindness boomerang whirring across the country. This week, a lovely gift greeted me when I retrieved my mail. A 40-page handmade book full of kids’ watercolor artwork and words inspired by the kindness theme. I hope you will read the below letter from Mrs. Heckart, a teacher whose third-grade class at Prairie Ridge Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa chooses a random act of kindness to perform each week. Amazing, right?

This time, their act of kindness was directed at me.

How lucky am I?

And how lucky the world is to have educators like Mrs. Heckart who are helping to shape compassionate, thoughtful citizens of the world. Indeed, the world is already a better place because of Mrs. Heckart and her students.

I know that my world is!

TLA, A book launch, school visits, Classes I’m Teaching, Oh My!

Life-sized Abe Lincoln is ready for photo-opps at my April 15th launch party.

Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words

Much has happened within the last month. The book launch trailer for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words released, which makes me all kinds of giddy. Then, on April 1, the book itself hit bookstore shelves. I hope you will get your own copy from your favorite independent bookstore and share it with the young people in your life. I think you will agree that it has powerful tie-ins with character education. And I employed a fun, direct-address narrator that makes it great for read-alouds, too. Be sure to read the expanded content, linked to the book page here. While you’re on that page, if you’re a librarian or teacher, consider sharing the full bibliography and my working timeline with your students. Everyone will be surprised to learn how much peripheral research was required. And don’t miss the teacher’s guide here. 

Though the book released April 1, the official launch party for Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words will be Sunday, April 15, 2018, at 2:00 pm at Book People in Austin. If you’re in the area, please come by for a reading, snacks, trivia, and a photo opp. You can view/print the Lincoln launch flyer for full information.

Step Right Up

Taking photos of your kids in the bluebonnets is a Texas tradition that has taken on a new meaning for me this year:)

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter, continues to be embraced by schools and families around the country. Entire schools are taking the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge. How humbling and lovely! As many of you know, because of my personal connection to horses and my love of all animals, this story is infused with an extra piece of my heart. Now, SRU is on at least four state award lists, including Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, and the Texas Bluebonnet master list for 2018-19. As a native Texan, I admit to being especially honored by the Bluebonnet nod. At the 2018 TX Library Association (TLA) conference in Dallas this past weekend, I had a blast meeting librarians from around the state during the Bluebonnet speed dating event and signing. What these remarkable literary champions may not realize is that we authors think of them as the rock stars. After all, every educator spends their career to changing young lives every day. Wow!


Honored to see Step Right Up acknowledged for the 2018-19 Bluebonnet master list.

Other highlights from TLA’18 included catching up with other authors, meeting TLA committee and staff members, collecting more books, signing both of my books in the author area, attending the Bluebonnet luncheon, and being stopped by KidLitTV for an interview. You can see that here. 

School visits

I’ve had a lot of school visits in Texas this year, and I look forward to traveling to Louisiana for school visits in May. During my presentations, I offer my personal connection to my books, my writing and research process (aimed to reinforce classroom goals), expanded content, and a conversation about how one person can make a difference with kindness and how words are a super power. During the 2018-19 Bluebonnet season, I hope to visit as many schools as possible.

You can view/print my 2018 School visit flyer here. Email me for more information. 

Upcoming Classes that I’m Teaching

If you’re a librarian or teacher who dreams of being published, stay tuned. I might be offering an online class or webinar just for you!

If you’re interested in having me critique your manuscript, of if you’re interested in hiring a writing coach, donna@donnajanellbowman.comemail me.

June 9, 2018—I will be teaching a one-day workshop on writing picture book biographies for the San Antonio chapter of SCBWI. Registration is open.

June-July—I’ll be teaching an online class about picture book biographies. Stay tuned for details. Email if you would like more information.

Fall 2018 (event not yet announced)—I’ll be speaking at an SCBWI conference about writing query letters, synopsis, and cover letters. Stay tuned.

Subscribe to my e-newsletter to stay up to date with what I’m offering.

That’s quite enough for this month, don’t you think? Thank you for taking the time to read.

Step Right Up is a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee!

I am immensely honored that Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness has been named to the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list for 2018-19. Many hundreds (500-700?) of books are considered before the twenty finalists are chosen for this list. What a thrill!

Thank you, Texas librarians!

Thank you, Texas Library Association!

Thank you, TX Bluebonnet Award Selection Committee!

Thank you, thank you—a bazillion times, thank you!

And, to the nineteen other finalists on the list, congratulations times a bazillion, too!

Here’s the full list of nominees:

  • Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers)
  • Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López (Godwin Books/Henry Holt, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group)
  • The Bicycle Spy by Yona Zeldis McDonough (Scholastic Press)
  • Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix by Jacqueline Briggs Martin and June Jo Lee, illustrated by Man One (Readers to Eaters)
  • Garvey’s Choice by Nikki Grimes (Wordsong, an imprint of Highlights Press)
  • Grand Canyon by Jason Chin (Neal Porter Books/Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group)
  • Grandpa’s Hal-La-Loo-Ya Hambone by Joe Hayes, illustrated by Antonio Castro L.  (Cinco Puntos Press)
  • The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley (Scholastic Press)
  • Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
  • How to Avoid Extinction by Paul Acampora (Scholastic Press)
  • Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing by Kay A. Haring, illustrated by Robert Neubecker (Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group)
  • Me and Marvin Gardens by Amy Sarig King (Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Press)
  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic Press)
  • Sergeant Reckless: The True Story of the Little Horse Who Became a Hero by Patricia McCormick, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (Balzer & Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Slider by Pete Hautman (Candlewick Press)
  • Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres (Little, Brown and Company)
  • Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Bowman, illustrated by Daniel Minter (Lee and Low Books)
  • The Unlucky Lottery Winners of Classroom 13 by Honest Lee and Matthew J. Gilbert, illustrated by Joelle Dreidemy (Little, Brown and Company)
  • Wedgie & Gizmo by Suzanne Selfors, illustrated by Barbara Fisinger (Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

FAQ about STEP RIGHT UP and Beautiful Jim Key

The most difficult part of writing nonfiction is deciding what to leave out of my narrative. In Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, it was especially painful to leave out super-cool details and anecdotes. Kids ask me about behind-the-scenes goodies at almost every school I visit, so I decided to compile the most frequently asked questions, along with bonus material.

Why did Doc join the Confederate side during the Civil War?
To be clear, Doc didn’t join the war. He followed the Key sons into the Confederacy to keep them safe. Later, in a Beautiful Jim Key promotional pamphlet, Doc was quoted as saying, “I loved my young masters. I was afraid they would get killed or not have anything to eat, so I went with them.”

In a 1903 letter published in the Washington Times, John F. Key, one of the former master’s three sons, wrote: “When the war came on, being very much attached to his master’s family, he accompanied his three sons as servant into the Confederate Army, one of the sons, the undersigned, remaining attached tot he army until the close of the war.”  And, “. . . on the surrender of Fort Donelson, he took on his back the only one of his young masters who was present, and evading the pickets, escaped.”

Tennessee, with its three distinct regions, has a complex history related to slavery, Confederate and Union occupation, and the timeline of emancipation. There’s not enough space here to go into it, but I encourage you to read about it. Or bring me to your school for a fuller conversation.

What surprised me most about Doc’s Civil War experience?
So much about Doc surprised me! Here are just a few:

* The fact that he could have hightailed it to freedom, but chose to stay with the master’s sons. Here are some tidbits to ponder:
* At Fort Donelson, Doc built a bastion of logs and rocks to shield the wounded soldiers. It was referred to as Fort Bill.
* The fact that he was caught twice and charged with being a spy. There are conflicting reports about how he escaped the hangman’s noose or firing squad.
* Maybe the most surprising of all was that, after the war, Doc, a free man, worked to pay off the $5,000 mortgage of his former master’s widow. Some reports also indicate that he sent the sons to school and bought one of them a house. Wow, right?

Was Doc ever married and did he have children?
Over his life, Doc married four strong, attractive, intelligent women. Unfortunately, three of them died during their marriage. What heartbreak, right? Their names were Lucy Davidson (married 17 years), Hattie Davidson, Lucinda Davis, and Maggie Davis. You’ve probably guessed that Doc married two sets of sisters.  He did not have any children of his own—probably because he was always traveling. Beautiful Jim Key seems to have satisfied any parental longings for Doc.

Was Jim the first animal Doc taught to perform tricks?
Nope! Doc was quoted as saying that, when he was six years old, he taught a rooster and yellow dog to perform tricks. I also found newspaper articles dated as early as 1876—more than twenty years before Beautiful Jim Key was born—that mention a trained horse, a trick pony, and a trained monkey that drew crowds to his medicine wagon. Obviously, Doc had lots of experience with training animals before Jim. I assume Jim was the first horse he attempted to “educate.” By that time, Doc had the luxury of time, and he was already a wealthy man.

Why did Doc name the horse Beautiful Jim Key?
In a December 19, 1898 article for the Atlanta Constitution, Doc told the reporter that he originally “had some very fine Bible names picked out,” but the colt was born “such a miserable looking specimen” that he contemplated putting him out of his misery.  When the colt survived, he named him Jim, in honor of Jim Hunter, the “laziest, most trifling . . . [man] in all the country . . .” Doc said Jim Hunter was a “tumble-down looking fellow who came weaving over the ground and who walked so wobbly that if he was to try to cross a wheat field he would ruin it. So, I called the colt after him.”
In some early articles, Jim Hunter is claimed to have been a drunk. So, there you go. the colt was named Jim after a wobbly neighbor, and Doc tacked on his own last name, too. Jim Key. We’ll never know the intended biblical name Doc had planned, but isn’t it lovely that reporters later acknowledged that Jim Key had grown into a handsome stallion by tacking”Beautiful” onto his name? Beautiful Jim Key.

Did Doc ever want to sell Beautiful Jim Key?
This is one of the most compelling and ambiguous parts of the story. Shortly after the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, articles appeared in newspapers claiming that Jim was sold to promoter Albert Rogers for $10,000 (approx. $273,000 in today’s dollars). The claim that the horse then belonged to Rogers and that Doc remained as Jim’s handler, was repeated throughout Doc and Jim’s long career. We will never know what the real arrangement was, but Doc remained Jim’s caregiver for the rest of his own life.

I believe Doc remained Jim’s owner, but that a financial arrangement was made with Rogers in exchange for managing and promoting the act. In the following excerpt from a 1905 letter to Albert Rogers about an upcoming performance, Doc’s wording further convinces me that ownership of Jim had not transferred: “In making you this proposition, my services and those of my horse, “Jim Key” will be rendered you just the same as I did at the St. Louis Exposition, and at White City, Chicago . . .”

No doubt, having a white promotor and manager allowed Doc opportunities in whites-only venues. Perhaps Doc agreed to let Rogers be advertised as the horse’s owner for that reason.

Did People Offer to Buy Beautiful Jim Key?
Oh, yes! Reportedly, Doc turned down many offers between $10,000 and $250,000 ($6.8 million dollars today) by a syndicate. Among those who offered to buy Jim were the famed animal trainer, Frank Bostock, and P.T. Barnum, and James Bailey, of Barnum & Bailey circus. In a 1898 Pennsylvania newspaper, Bailey was quoted as saying, “I consider this the most remarkable feat I ever witnessed performed by an animal, and I consider Beautiful Jim Key the most wonderful animal I have ever seen in all my experience.”
As his fame increased, the value shown for Beautiful Jim Key on promotional pamphlets rose from $25,000 to $1 million.

Did Beautiful Jim Key sire any foals?
As a matter of fact, we know of at least two. According to author Mim Eichler Rivas, Jim sired a filly named Queen Key who was raised by Albert Rogers’ son. He also sired a colt named Jim, Jr. that Doc was training to follow in Jim’s footsteps. In August 1909, a Nashville Globe article about an upcoming Tennessee Colored Fair dedicated most of its space to announcing that Doc would be exhibiting Jim, Jr., the sixteen-month-old offspring of the smartest horse in the world. Apparently, with only three months of training, the colt was already repeating some of his sire’s (BJK’s) feats. Unfortunately, Doc passed away within two months of the article’s printing. I do not know what became of Jim, Jr. after that.

How did Beautiful Jim Key die?
After Doc’s death in 1909, Jim remained in the care of Doc’s former brother-in-law, Stanley Davis. Stanley had been Jim’s long-time groom but later became a successful veterinarian in Bedford County. He surely provided the best possible care for Jim’s continual problems with rheumatism.  In early 1913, Stanley wrote to Albert Rogers that “Old Jim Key died last October (1912). He just passed out with all ease, didn’t even struggle. We buried him in the front yard.” Years later, the Key land was sold, so Jim’s body was exhumed and moved to its current location, three miles south of the Shelbyville Courthouse, just north of Himesville Road where it intersects with the Old Tullahoma Highway.

What was the original Jim Key Pledge of Kindness?

Take the updated version, the Step Right Up Kindness Pledge here. 

If I could choose one surprising factoid about Doc that didn’t make it into the book, what would it be?      There are soooo many cool facts, but here’s one that intrigues me: Doc was sometimes referred to as a voodoo man because he always strung a garland of 5,000 rabbit’s feet above Jim’s stage. No doubt, this is related to cultural superstitions. Doc claimed that the rabbit’s feet came from Civil War battlefields—perhaps remnants of soldier’s cooking pots.

Stay tuned for more FAQ posts about SRU and Beautiful Jim Key. Click here to send me your burning question. You might find my response in my next post.

Click here for information about my author visits.