Welcome to the Q&A and giveaway for the January edition of my Bartography Express newsletter (which you can sign up for here).
My Q&A this month is with Donna Janell Bowman, author of the nonfiction picture book Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, illustrated by Daniel Minter and published by Lee & Low.
Step Right Up tells the true story of how formerly enslaved William “Doc” Key relied on the power of kindness to transform a sickly colt named Beautiful Jim Key into an astounding equine specimen capable of feats of reading, writing, and math. The book has been selected as a finalist for readers’ choice awards in six states, including the Bluebonnet Award in Donna’s home state of Texas.
Donna is also the author of Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words, a 2018 picture book (illustrated by S.D. Schindler and published by Peachtree) about a little-known scrape that Lincoln got himself into as a young man — a duel that could have ended his career or even his life. And like me, Donna loves doing school visits.
I’m giving away one signed copy of Step Right Up. If you’re a Bartography Express subscriber with a US mailing address and you want that winner to be you, just let me know (in the comments below or by emailing me) before midnight on January 31, and I’ll enter you in the drawing.
In the meantime, please enjoy my two-question Q&A with Donna Janell Bowman.
Chris: Step Right Up was published in October 2016, which means that librarians and other educators have now had more than two years to try out ways of connecting young readers to the story of Doc and Jim Key. There’s been time for word of their efforts to get back to you, and for you to see some of those efforts for yourself.
During that time, what has stood out to you about the ways that kids and adults have responded to Step Right Up?
Donna: There’s an extra dose of my heart woven into Step Right Up, but I hadn’t anticipated how the story would resonate with so many readers. The ways Doc and Jim inspired kindness is worthy on its own, but the fortuitous timing of the book’s release — a month before the presidential election that put families and neighbors at odds — elevated the story’s appeal even more. The time was ripe for a kindness story then as now.
It is heartwarming to know that schools and libraries are using Step Right Up to spark discussions about kindness and to promote anti-bullying environments. I occasionally receive fan mail or the unexpected gift, like the kindness book made up of twenty or so pages illustrated in watercolor — an Iowa class’ random act of kindness to me. Yep, they instituted a random-act-of-kindness tradition. Be still my heart!
Through letters and photos from educators and at the schools I visit, I am humbled by hallways plastered with student-signed copies of the downloadable Step Right Up Kindness Pledge, artwork inspired by Daniel Minter’s exquisite illustrations, painted kindness-inspired keywords, paper kindness chains with links produced by every student, Popsicle-stick horses, horseshoe-shaped compliments exchanged between students, pet blankets made for local animal shelters. And on and on. Educators are brilliant at weaving impactful lessons into fun art projects. They know that, while kids busy their hands making things, their minds and hearts are connecting to the story.
Chris: Is there a book that you’ve come across — either in your creation of Step Right Up or since your book was published — that you think complements Doc and Jim Key’s story especially well? Something that readers who love Step Right Up might also enjoy?
Donna: I’m gonna be a rebel here, because it’s almost impossible for me to zero in on a single recommended title for young readers, in part because Step Right Up seems to appeal to a very broad age range, and it touches on several concepts, especially kindness.
I hope Step Right Up primes kids to learn more about the people who championed the humane treatment of animals, and Nancy Furstinger’s Mercy: The Incredible Story of Henry Bergh, Founder of the ASPCA and Friend to Animals is a great introduction.
For a contemporary true story about a woman who took extreme measures to rescue a horse from an abusive situation, I recommend G. Neri and Corban Wilkin’s middle-grade graphic novel, Grand Theft Horse.
For picture book readers who love animal stories, Maria Gianferrari and Luisa Uribe’s Operation Rescue Dog ticks a lot of boxes, including information about animal shelters.
And, goodness, I hope readers will rediscover the preeminent book to spark empathy for animals — Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, which has the bonus appeal of a connection to Beautiful Jim Key. You see, Jim was seen as the living example of Black Beauty’s message.