Kid Lit Review of “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness” by Donna Janell Bowman

This is the true and amazing story about William “Doc” Key, born into slavery in 1833, and illegally educated by his masters.


Young William had a way with animals, and soon he was being sent all over Bedford County, Tennessee to help with injured or ill animals. Before long his skills extended to people, who started calling him Doc Key.


After Emancipation, Key started his own business and even created his own line of medicines, including “Doc’s Keystone Liniment,” which became a popular treatment for both people and horses.

One day Doc spotted a neglected and abused mare near a circus, and bought her for $40, naming her Lauretta. He nursed Lauretta back to heath and paired her with a racing stallion. Her first colt was sickly, but Doc nursed the colt back to health just as he had done with the mare. He called the colt Jim Key.


After a year, Lauretta died, but Jim Key still needed constant observation, so Doc moved the colt into his house. Jim began to act more like a dog than a horse, and when he grew too big for the house, he pitched a fit until Doc moved into the stall with him. Soon Jim began to accompany Doc on his trips to sell horse liniment. Jim would “act” sick and then instantly “recover” after getting the liniment.

Doc wondered what else Jim could learn, and began teaching him. After six months, Jim could pick out letters on cards when Doc said them. He learned to lick his name in sugar on a blackboard. After seven years of instruction, Doc took Jim to the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville. Packed crowds were in awe as they watched Jim exhibit his learning.


Doc explained: “The whip makes horses stubborn and they obey through fear. Kindness, kindness, and more kindness, that’s the way.”

Doc and Jim went on the road, experiencing a great deal of racial discrimination. But humane societies, dedicated to ending cruelty toward animals, sponsored Doc and Jim, using a portion of ticket sales to help animals. In 1898, Jim actually started winning spelling bees! Professors from Harvard University who studied Jim concluded there were no tricks or hoax; “It is simply education.” Doc and Jim now drew record-breaking crowds. But as the author reports, Doc would not perform anywhere that had segregated seating.

The two retired when Doc was 73 and Jim was 17.

In the Afterword, the author tells about some additional accomplishments of Jim, and about the stray dog they both adopted, Monk, who served as Jim’s bodyguard, often riding on his back.


The author writes:

“Doc and Jim’s legacy lives on in today’s stronger humane movement, better enforced animal anticruelty laws, and greater societal compassion toward animals.”

Illustrations by award-winning Daniel Minter are charming. You can also see read photos and learn a great deal more about Doc, Jim, and Monk at the website “Beautiful Jim Key.”

For organizations that promote humane treatment of animals, a good resource is the website for MSPCA, Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals–Angell Animal Medical Center. One of the first humane organizations in America founded shortly after the Civil War, its mission is to protect animals, relieve their suffering, advance their health and welfare, prevent cruelty, and work for a just and compassionate society. You can also access their “Companion” newsletter, featuring pet-care tips and stories about people who love and care for companion animals. Another good site is “The Animal Rescue Site,” also dedicated to helping animals.

Doc Key and Jim Key

Doc Key and Jim Key

Evaluation: This incredible story should help all readers understand that animals are sentient beings, deserving of respect and care and love. The fruits of such treatment will be rewarding all the way around.

Note: Lee & Low features a great teacher’s guide, with more links, background, questions, and activities, here.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, 2016

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1 Response to Kid Lit Review of “Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness” by Donna Janell Bowman

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    Oh my gosh, I want that book and I want to know more about Doc and Jim Key! I’m going to check out that website right now.

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