Friday, November 24, 2017

Fact Friday: Step Right Up: how Doc and Jim Key taught the world about kindness by Donna Janell Bowman

Step Right Up: how Doc and Jim Key taught the world about kindness by Donna Janell Bowman. Illustrated by Daniel Minter. unpgd. Lee & Low Books, October, 2016. 9781620141489. (Review from purchased copy).

William Key was born enslaved in Tennessee, where he showed an early propensity with animals and a natural curiosity that was encouraged by his "kind" owners. He learned to read and was able to travel from plantation to plantation to care for and train animals, earning himself the nickname, "Doc." He observed that animals were routinely beaten into submission and maintained that they would learn faster and better through kindness.

After the Civil War was over, he settled in Shelbyville, Tennessee and began to set up a series of businesses around the care and treatment of animals. He made medicines, including a liniment, that were in demand and so, he traveled the south with his medicine cart to sell his goods. While traveling through Mississippi, he came upon a circus that was trying to sell off their horses. He spied Lauretta, a broken and abused mare and recognized that she was an Arabian. He bought her and nursed her back to health. He had hoped to breed her but when her foal was born sickly, those hopes were dashed.

Nonetheless, he cared for the colt that he named Jim and Jim bonded with Doc. Doc noticed how observant Jim was and set about to see just how much Jim could learn. A lot, it turned out. The pair performed at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, where they were a huge hit and soon in demand. Eventually, Doc Key teamed up with humane societies to spread their message of being kind to animals.

The linoleum block cut prints were painted with warm-toned acrylic. The mostly double-page spreads perfectly complement the engaging and well-told story. There's plenty of back-matter with more information about the famous pair, along with photos and historical context. Source notes and bibliography round out this unique and important addition to the biography section. 
I learned of this when it made the Notables List. Once I read it, I knew it would be a perfect addition to my sixth grade picture book biography unit. I appreciate it more with each reading. It makes for a great read aloud. I chose to read it to my sixth graders on the half-day before Thanksgiving break rather than dragging the laptops out for the half hour. They were rapt.

Visit Lee & Low's website for more information on how to use this book in the classroom. There's a downloadable teacher's guide on the book's web page as well as interviews and even a video of the artist discussing his process. 

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