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.




“Educating” Beautiful Jim Key — the Dee Dee Effect

Jim Key spelling St. Elmo. 1904

I had an interesting conversation recently about how I thought Beautiful Jim Key was “educated” or trained to exhibit his remarkable skills. I was asked if I believe that Jim learned the way a child would learn, or if I thought there might have been some undetected cues from Doc. Since Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness contains an Afterward, rather than an author’s note, there was no space for me to expand on my beliefs about Jim’s skills, so I thought I’d broaden the discussion here.

First, my background

I grew up with horses. They were my pals and horse show partners. During both training and recreational times, I was constantly awed by their intelligence and willingness to please. But it never occurred to me to experiment with teaching a horse anything resembling a human curriculum. As I think about practical horse behavior, beyond saddle and bridle, there’s no mistaking their brainpower, exhibited in even the subtlest of ways. Horses can be trained, they can be conditioned, and they can learn. Doc Key was quoted as saying, “I have always argued that if a mule in a cornfield can be taught what ‘gee’ and ‘haw’ means, that with patience and time that any animal can be taught a great deal more.” I believe that wholeheartedly. But, let’s be clear that horses learn with horse brains, not human brains. They do not speak our language or have human thought processes. They learn from us by observation, our own repetitive behaviors and requests, cause-and-effect actions, and reactions. Feeding a horse from the same bucket teaches them to identify that bucket. Housing a horse in the same stall does the same—they learn which stall is theirs. They know by sight what a saddle, syringe, or sweet treat means, and they learn that a rider’s or handler’s nudge with a leg, point of a finger, tension on the reins, all mean something. And, yes, horses learn voice commands easily. Perhaps most importantly to training, horses identify and react accordingly to people, based on how they are treated or have been treated in the past. They “read” voice inflections, a person’s moods, body language, and so much more! If you have a dog, a pet bird, or a resident gorilla, this might sound very familiar.

Long ago, Dee Dee taught me these basic lessons especially well. Of all the horses I had the pleasure of growing up with, showing, and loving, Dee Dee was my soulmate horse. Go ahead and giggle. See, when I was a pre-teen and teen, this mare and I had such a deep connection, formed from spending so much time together, that my mother joked that a horse could read my mind. It was uncanny. Dee Dee and I were in sync in an exquisite, beautiful way that paid off in the show ring and in our mutual affection for each other. The nano-second that I would have a thought about moving one of her feet, or changing gaits or, whatever, Dee Dee made the change. In retrospect, I’m sure she knew my microscopic body language so well that she could predict my next move, sometimes before I had completed my thought. Likewise, I could read her moods and coming changes, though I think she was the more observant. The more we practiced any skill, the more in sync Dee Dee and I became. In a sense, we learned enough of each other’s language to get along brilliantly. As I began researching about Beautiful Jim Key, I couldn’t help but reflect on my years with Dee Dee, especially when I learned about the Clever Hans effect.

Clever Hans with owner Wilhelm von Osten

Who Was Clever Hans?

Clever Hans was touted as an “educated” horse in Berlin in the first decade of the nineteenth century—Just as Doc and Beautiful Jim Key retired to Tennessee. Owned by Wilhelm von Osten, Clever Hans exhibited many amazing feats similar to, though not as advanced as, Beautiful Jim Key. It was eventually declared that Clever Hans was reading subtle cues by his owner or by anyone with the correct answer to questions posed to him. Whether those cues were established by intentional training or through his owner’s subconscious body language is still in debate. Anyway, Clever Hans and von Osten were mostly (and perhaps unjustly) discredited at the time. Today, there appears to be a push in the scientific community to return Clever Hans and his owner to a place of honor and respect. After all, even if Clever Hans was trained to notice these microscopic cues, doesn’t that itself indicate a tremendous intelligence? Is that any less remarkable?

Need Proof of Nonhuman Intelligence?

One doesn’t have to search far today to find research proving that animals are more intelligent than we ever knew. Need a few examples? There’s Koko, the lowland gorilla with a world famous sign language vocabulary that proves that she puts context to human words. There’s Alex, the African grey parrot who learned over one hundred vocal labels for objects, identified letters, and calculated small sums. On the horse front, there’s Lukas, the rescued thoroughbred who identifies numbers, letters, and colors, and who is calculating simple math. There are plenty more available studies proving that horses can learn to communicate with their handlers in different ways. Here’s one from Applied Animal Behavior, and one about horse memory. And here’s one from Horse Channel about horses learning to communicate their preference for blankets in varying weather conditions. And here’s an Equus article about horses’ math abilities.  And, take the time to watch this Rick Lamb video interview with Mim Eichler Rivas, author of the only adult book about Doc and Jim titled Beautiful Jim Key: The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed the World—considered the only scholarly source—the end of which includes additional information about scientific studies. Also, check out the Equine Research Foundation and their mega-list of articles related to horse behavior and intelligence.

I hope Step Right Up will inspire you to explore the exciting research being conducted on nonhuman intelligence. Be wowed and impressed. Though nonhuman intelligence does not equate to human thought processes, I think you’ll agree that people have underestimated our fellow creatures.

Back to my thoughts about how Beautiful Jim Key was “educated”

So, back to Beautiful Jim Key. I tackled the countless newspaper accounts about BJK with the aim of finding the gotcha. Surely, someone caught Doc giving signals or cues, right? The fact that Jim Key accurately responded to spelling, math, identification of words, colors, playing cards, instructions, and other directives was proven again and again in different states and with different audiences. For nine years, the horse showed off these skills in front of millions of people, yet I have not found a single documented account that pointed to trickery. (I chose to ignore the two claims that Doc must have hypnotized the horse.) Usually, Doc was on stage with Jim Key, but sometimes a groom had to stand in. And there are accounts of reporters demanding to test the horse with nobody else in the room.

Though Doc explained some of his training methods, like how he taught Jim to retrieve a silver dollar from a bucket of water without drinking a drop, and how to identify letters by associating verbal representation with marked cards and a healthy dose of sweet rewards, there’s a whole heap we don’t know about how Jim learned, or was conditioned, or was trained. Is it possible that the Clever Hans Effect was in play? Might Jim have been reading Doc’s subtle body language and microscopic cues—whether intentionally given or not? I think Yes! At the very least, Doc and Jim were in sync the way Dee Dee and I were. Doc and Jim literally spent twenty years together. How could horse and man not become so in sync as to read each other?  I believe that Beautiful Jim Key was the product of kind and patient treatment and that he absorbed his lessons or skills through a combination of what I’ll forevermore call the Dee Dee effect: repetition, conditioning, positive reinforcements, training, and his remarkable ability to read his beloved human. All of it! However Jim learned to do so many remarkable things, WOW, WOW, WOW! 

My particular narrative for Step Right Up is focused on Doc’s life, Jim’s performances, and the tremendous effect the duo had on the emerging humane-movement. But there are so many layers yet to be explored. In the Afterword of Step Right Up, I acknowledge that we still can’t explain many of Jim’s apparent skills. I hope there is enough questioning throughout my book to inspire all readers to consider it further.

Ultimately, the hows of Jim’s “education” are not the most important part of the story. What is most profound is that the world likely became a kinder place—one animal at a time and one person at a time—because of Doc and Beautiful Jim Key.

This is the most important part.

Illustrator Daniel Minter Process Video – Illustrating Step Right Up’s Kindness Message

When I first learned that Daniel Minter had signed on to illustrate Step Right Up, I was over the moon excited. I was already a fan of his work. As is typical, we did not have contact during the years-long process of evolving the manuscript into a book. Except that I did introduce myself to Daniel by email and then sent him a box of research materials that I thought would be helpful to him as he approached the art. Now, we share this beautiful book that we are both very proud of.

My heart is in this book. Daniel’s heart is in this book. And now, thanks to this video, produced by Kirsten Cappy and Curious City and Lee and Low Books, the world can hear Daniel’s perspective on Doc’s kindness message while demonstrating his gorgeous linocut/wood cut and acrylic art.  William “Doc” Key would be proud. This video is a must see!

It’s Random Acts of Kindness Week!

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness has received such lovely attention since its October release. A list of some of those accolades and reviews can be found on the book’s dedicated page on this site. Thank you to all who have supported and embraced Doc and Jim’s story. As you know, the story is about many things, but kindness is the core—the driving force. With today’s political climate and the presumed upswing in aggressive and violent acts across the U.S., the story seems even more relevant today.

As we close out this Random Acts of Kindness Week, I thought it would be fun to share a few of the very many headlines that highlighted Doc’s kindness message during his 1897-1906 career with Jim. Trust me, it is not easy to choose from the countless examples I have organized in my mega-binder of research sources.

SRU mega binder of sources, organized chronologically.
Everyone from teamsters to teachers embraced the kindness message.
Schools sponsored essay contests, inspiring kids to write about kindness.
Humane organizations sponsored Doc and Jim. In turn, the organizations grew & flourished.
Doc and agent Albert Rogers knew that kids were/are the answer to a kinder future.

Approximately two million people joined the Jim Key Band of Mercy or took the Jim Key Pledge of Kindness.

Speaking of the kindness pledge, we have brought it back, updated to be more inclusive of people and animals. I hope you will share it with the young people in your life. You can find a color version of the pledge on the Step Right Up book page on this site. You can find the black and white version here. Kindness Pledge-black and white

Now, let us all go forth and choose kindness.

Check back often for updates.