Step Right Up

By The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

One of the unusual performing phenomena of the late nineteenth century was self-taught vet and former slave “Doc” Key and his highly educated horse, Beautiful Jim Key. Doc Key was a natural with animals and he initially sold liniment on the medicine show circuit; when the colt Jim Key proved to be a quick study, Doc brought Jim into the act and soon Jim’s trainability meant he became the star of his own show, spelling words, doing sums, and even writing his name. Doc was clear in his message that the key to educating his prodigy was “kindness, kindness, and more kindness,” a surprising idea in an era when horses were largely viewed as utilitarian and one that led millions of children to take the Jim Key Pledge of kindness to animals; even more revolutionary was Doc Key’s insistence that audience seating not be racially segregated. Bowman takes all the details of the tale at face value, so there’s no differentiation between hoopla and fact, but it’s otherwise 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.