Today on the Launchpad, we're celebrating kindness! A big welcome to Donna Janell Bowman (aka Donna Bowman Bratton), whose new picture book biography, with illustrator Daniel Minter, is winning the hearts of readers everywhere. Let's talk about Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, out now from Lee and Low.
A horse that can read, write, spell, and do math? Ridiculous! That’s what people thought in the late 1800s—until they met Beautiful Jim Key.
Born a weak and wobbly colt in 1889, Jim was cared for by William “Doc” Key, a formerly enslaved man and self-taught veterinarian who believed in treating animals with kindness, patience, and his own homemade remedies. Under Doc’s watchful eyes, Jim grew to be a healthy young stallion with a surprising talent—a knack for learning! For seven years, Doc and Jim worked together perfecting Jim’s skills. Then it was time for them to go on the road, traveling throughout the United States and impressing audiences with Jim’s amazing performances. In the process, they broke racial barriers and raised awareness for the humane treatment of animals.
Here is the fascinating true story of a remarkable man and his extraordinary horse. Together they asked the world to step right up and embrace their message of kindness toward animals.
"Doc" Key and Beautiful Jim Key. (Image may not be reproduced without permission.)
What was the most difficult element to cut/change during the revision process and why?
This is an easy question to answer. It was incredibly difficult to leave so much fascinating detail on the cutting room floor. The story of William “Doc” Key and Beautiful Jim Key is humongous, powerful, and full of drama. Whittling it down to the teeny tiny space of a picture book was such a challenge!
What was the spark that ignited this book?
The simple answer would be that the idea of an “educated” horse, trained only with kindness, fascinated me. The deeper answer is that Doc and Jim’s story resonated with me in a very personal way. I grew up on a Quarter Horse ranch, where I developed a deep and abiding love of animals, especially horses. All my free time was spent training for horse shows. I know what it’s like to spend so much time with a horse that you predict each other’s movements and practically read each other’s minds. But, I had never considered trying to teach a horse to write, spell, calculate, identify words, operate a cash register, file letters, etc., as Doc had with Jim. When I first heard of Doc and Jim, I was smitten but skeptical.
When I learned that Doc’s training principles were built on positive reinforcement and kindness—during a time of rampant brutality toward animals—I was hooked. I was even more invested when I learned about Doc’s extraordinary life journey, from enslavement to successful businessman, facing racial prejudice and other obstacles along the way. This was a story ripe for young readers. Ironically, while I am still awed by the horse’s feats, what’s even more significant to me now is how Doc and Beautiful Jim Key advanced the cause of the emerging humane movement, inspiring millions of people to be kinder to animals and to each other. In fact, an estimated two million people signed the Jim Key Pledge of Kindness! I knew I would revive that pledge. The new Step Right Up Pledge of Kindness has been reworded to be inclusive of animals and people, and is downloadable from my website.
What a beautiful pledge! I'm on board.
Tell us about how you sold this book. What was it like when you found out? Do you have an agent? Were there a lot of revisions along the way?
For anyone looking for a romantic story of being “discovered,” this might be a disappointment. I learned about Doc and Beautiful Jim Key in 2006, but the idea of writing a children’s book about the topic didn’t sink in until 2007, which led me to deep research that never really ended. That research included a trip to Tennessee, white-gloved perusal of documents at the Tennessee State Archives, hundreds of archived newspapers (digital and microfilm), promotional pamphlets from 1897-1906, research about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and about the heartbreaking history of the humane movement. In 2009, I submitted the first five chapters of my then-intended middle grade or young adult nonfiction book to the agent I would eventually sign with. But, she suggested I rewrite the book as a picture book biography. I was aghast! But I was also eager. I spent the next year and a half dissecting hundreds of picture book biographies to figure out how they worked. After a whole heap of very bad drafts, I finally had a version that attracted the attention of three editors in 2011—three editors with radically different visions for the book. When the first call came in, I was sitting in a sling chair at a lake, laughing at my pre-teen son and his two friends who were struggling to pull each other out of a mud bog. So, you see, I will never forget that call!
I knew Lee and Low was the right publisher for this story because of their commitment to exceptional multicultural books. I revised for my editor for two years before they offered the contract. Then, I revised many more times after that, scaling the story back in some places, while expanding it in others. The published book is significantly longer than my original manuscript.
Beautiful Jim Key competed in spelling bees! Illustration by Daniel Minter.
What nugget of craft advice has been especially helpful to you?
Honestly, the best advice I’ve ever received, especially in terms of this book, was Cynthia Leitich Smith telling me, back in 2009, that I shouldn’t be afraid to start over. As in, open a new blank document where you can re-envision the tale. It took me a long while to realize that she was absolutely right. And, let me tell you, I’ve started over many times with most of my manuscripts that followed Step Right Up. Though it’s still a struggle at times, I’m getting better at finding each book’s unique voice, while not falling in love with the arrangement of my own words.
Who were your advisors at VCFA?
I was honored to work with Sharon Darrow, Jane Kurtz, David Gill, and Shelley Tanaka over the last two years. I’ve enjoyed how different they are in terms of strengths, advising styles, and personalities. I always heard that, as a student, you get the advisor that you’re meant to have. Boy, do I believe that now! I adore each of them, and I’ve certainly learned a lot from them.
How did attending VCFA affect your writing life?
Oh, gosh, how shall we count the ways! I don’t graduate until January 2017, and I just sent my creative thesis this week. Later, when I have distance from my school experience (and have a chance to rest up), I’ll probably have a better answer to this question. Though I came into the program with seven books already sold, the program has deepened and expanded my vocabulary, analytical skills, and writing skills. But, being a student while juggling a writing career has been a challenging juggle. This has required me to compartmentalize my energies and time commitments—not an easy task when you throw family and personal commitments into the mix. The glorious VCFA community makes it all worth it— through conversation, commiseration, lectures, advisor feedback, and generous sharing, I have grown as a writer. And I have a gaggle of amazing new friendships that will last far beyond graduation.
What was special about your VCFA graduating class? (Shout out to our newest alums, the Harried Plotters!)
I get a little choked-up when I think about my class, The Harried Plotters. I am in awe of each and every one of my classmates/friends. Besides being incredible talents, they are funny, caring, sensitive, compassionate, amazing human beings. When one person is having a bad day, phone calls and texts fire up. When anybody has good news, we all celebrate. When packet work is hard (always), postcards and letters arrive in mailboxes. Heck, six of my classmates travelled to Austin for my book launch last month! That sums it up, doesn’t it? And those who couldn’t travel were here in spirit. As a whole, we have become family, and I am so grateful for them.
Thanks so much for stopping by. We're so happy this amazing story and your wonderful telling of it is out in the world!