Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness

Step Right Up FINAL FC hi res

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness
by Donna Bowman
Illustrated by Daniel Minter

Readers Theater

Book Trailer

Author Interview

Illustrator Interview

Related Activities & Resources:

Informational Resources:

Author Information:

Donna Janell Bowman’s website:

Illustrator Information:

Daniel Minter’s website:

Maine College of Art faculty bio:

Activities & Resources:

Step Right Up Teacher’s Guide:


Dr. William “Doc” Key:

Information on Dr. William Key:

FAQs about Step Right Up:

Other famous Americans:

Beautiful Jim Key:

Beautiful Jim Key — The Lost History:

Beautiful Jim Key movie information:

Jim Key Pledge (original pledge) – read to almost the bottom of the page:

Jim Key Pledge (updated pledge):


Arabian Horses:

How Horses View the World:

Horse training tips:


Tennessee History (Doc Key’s home state):


Veterinarian career information:

MakerSpace Activities:

This book moves from present to past to present again. Create a timeline of the major events in this book. Illustrate each major event in a scrapbook format, using a variety of materials found in the makerspace.

Do further research to learn all of what William “Doc” Key was able to teach his horse. Compare this to things other horses have been able to learn over the years. Research which animals are smartest and most able to learn from humans. Create a video describing what you have learned.

Show students this video about how the illustrations for Step Right Up were created: (4:37). Discuss other ways the book might have been illustrated and whether or not this was the best way. Ask students to try their hand at illustrating one page of the book.

Ask students to design and create horse puppets, using recycled materials brought from home (mismatched socks, buttons, felt, yarn, fabric, etc.). Students may present a play, using the puppets they designed.

Discussion Questions:

What actions show that William Key was excited about the birth of a colt? How would you respond to a new animal’s arrival? What preparations would you make?

Even though he was a slave, William was educated as a child. It gave him a sense of freedom. How does learning make you feel? How will education affect the rest of your life?

What characteristics made William Key especially good with animals?

William’s mother taught him about homemade remedies. What homemade remedies have you made and used? Did they work for you? What special things have your parents taught you?

“Doc” was a nickname given to William Key out of respect. What other positive nicknames have you heard given to others? What original names went with the nicknames? What other names would sound good with those nicknames?

After the Civil War, William became a free man. How do you think his former education helped him as he built a new life?

Doc Key created Keystone Liniment which was used for people and animals. What other products can you find which are designed for animals and people to use?

Doc became a successful businessman and became friends with everyone to overcome the prejudice that others had for him as a former slave. If you had to try to make others like and accept you, what would you do to make that happen?

William Key had several businesses including a blacksmith shop, a restaurant, and a hotel. If you were to open a business of your own, what would it be? Describe your dream business in detail. How would it help others?

Why do you think Doc purchased Lauretta? What would you do to help an animal who was hurt or mistreated?

Why do you think Doc chose to save Jim’s life instead of putting him out of his misery, as others suggested?

Were you surprised to find that Jim was able to play fetch? Why or why not?

What tricks would you like to teach an animal? Describe your training plan.

Would you allow a large animal like a horse to live in your home as Doc did? If so, which rooms would you allow him or her to enter? What special rules or restrictions would you have?

Why do you think Jim didn’t want to live in the stable when he was too big to live in the house?

How did Jim’s ability to act affect Doc’s sales of Keystone Liniment? What influences people to purchase products today?

Do you think that Mrs. Key was surprised when Jim answered her question by nodding his head up and down? Have you seen an animal answer a question? If yes, describe how the animal did so.

Why do you think Doc used sugar to train Jim? What special tricks have you or someone you know used when training an animal? Describe which things worked and which things did not.

The kinder Doc was to Jim, the more easily he learned. Do you think this is true for people, as well? Give examples that support your opinion.

What impact do you think Doc and Jim Key had on the school children they visited?

Book Talk Teasers:

Show this video of a horse doing tricks (including math problems) (3:25):

Then introduce the book to the group.

Read the Readers Theater for Step Right Up.

Read Alikes:

Animal Welfare

Citra, Becky. Duke’s den. When Amelia and her divorced mother move upstairs from an apartment full of exotic animals, Amelia tries to keep the secret of the animals from her mother while caring for Winston, a rare tortoise. (NoveList)

Dorsey, Angela. Summer of wild hearts. Evy’s overprotective mother is letting her go to the rodeo; however, once there she meets an abused, drugged and terrified horse that refuses her help and at the same time her filly, Twilight is in danger miles away. (Novelist)

Lewis, Gill. Moon bear. In Laos, twelve-year-old Tam must work at a bear farm where bears are cruelly caged and milked for their bile, but when a familiar cub is brought to the farm, Tam will do anything to free both the cub, and himself. (NoveList)

Horse Picture Books

Gaillard, Frye. Go south to freedom: based on a true story. Weaves the story of Gilbert Fields, an African-born slave from Georgia, and his family, with the history of the Seminole Indians and their alliance with runaway slaves during the Seminole Wars of the 1830s. (NoveList)

MacLeod, Elizabeth. Bunny the brave war horse: based on a true story. A long-eared horse named Bunny proves himself invaluable as a war horse during World War I, especially to his two riders, brother soldiers Bud and Thomas Dundas. (NoveList)

McCully, Emily Arnold. Wonder horse: the true story of the world’s smartest horse. A fictionalized account of Bill “Doc” Key, a former slave who became a veterinarian, trained his horse, Jim Key, to recognize letters and numbers and to perform in skits around the country, and moved the nation toward a belief in treating animals humanely. Includes an author’s note. (NoveList)

McMullin, Neridah. Fabish: the horse that braved a bushfire. A powerful and beautifully illustrated picture book based on the true story of a heroic horse called Fabish, who saved a group of young horses during the Black Saturday bushfires. (NoveList)

Horse Training

Angus, Sam. Soldier dog. Follows the World War I experiences of Stanley, who upon joining the war effort to escape his father is assigned to the experimental War Dog School, where he trains a Great Dane with whom he attempts to find his missing soldier brother. (NoveList)

Daher, Anita. Wonder horse. Sera’s parents give her an American paint horse to help her fit into her new surroundings, and a mean girl’s comments leave Sera determined to prove her wrong. (NoveList)

Dahlstrom, S. J.The green colt. Wilder Good is given a green colt by his grandfather, but when he runs into trouble, his grandfather hires Tequito, a Mexican vaquero, to help and Wilder learns how Mexican traditions led to the creation of the American cowboy. (NoveList)

Human Animal Communication

Henson, Heather. The whole sky. Twelve-year-old Sky, a horse whisperer like her father, must put her own troubles aside when a devastating sickness strikes the foals at the multi-million dollar horse farms where they work. (NoveList)

MacLachlan, Patricia. The poet’s dog. Teddy, a dog, leads siblings Nickel and Flora through a terrible snowstorm to shelter in a cabin, where he is flooded with memories of his deceased owner, the poet Sylvan. (NoveList)

Rocha, K. E. Mission to Moon Farm. Spencer Plain has been settling into his new home in Bearhaven, the secret refuge his parents created, learning to speak Ragayo which is the bear’s language, and improving his survival skills–he still does not know where his parents are, but he knows that when his best friend, a bear cub named Kate, is kidnapped it is up to him to rescue her before it is too late. (NoveList)


Bowman, Donna Janell Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness 48 pp. Lee 2016. ISBN 978-1-62014-148-9
(2) K-3 Illustrated by Daniel Minter. William “Doc” Key was a self-taught veterinarian who was born into slavery and became a free man after the Civil War. With Doc’s gentle, noncoercive training, his colt, Jim, learned to read, spell, write, and do sums, and thus became the star of Doc’s traveling shows. Bowman’s narration is steady and natural. Minter’s woodcut-style illustrations are enticing and warm. Bib.  Reprinted from The Horn Book Guide Excerpt in  Magazine  by permission of Horn Book, Inc.

Bowman, Donna Janell. Illustrated by Daniel Minter.  Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness.  Lee and Low Books, 2016.   School Library Journal (October 1, 2016)
Gr 2-6-  A profile of William “Doc” Key and his relationship with animals, specifically his skilled horse Jim. Key was born a slave in Shelbyville, TN, in the 1830s. After the Civil War, he stayed in Shelbyville and built a veterinary where he sold his homemade remedies, and became very successful. Referred to as “Doc” Key, he traveled extensively while pursuing various entrepreneurial goals. Key eventually trained a clumsy colt named Jim to amaze audiences with his uncanny ability to spell and do math. He donated portions of his proceeds to humane societies and was instrumental in raising awareness for the compassionate treatment of animals. Minter’s linoleum block prints, painted with acrylic, add the perfect historic feel to an incredible true story. The extensive back matter will be useful for student reports. VERDICT A solid purchase for most collections with an interest in biographies and animal rights.-Jennifer Steib Simmons, Anderson County Library, SC © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.  Reprinted with permission from School Library Journal , 2016.