A horse is a horse, but sometimes it takes a special person to recognize its real worth. Bill “Doc” Key was born a slave, but became a veterinarian and a successful entrepreneur in post-Civil War Tennessee. Doc decided to see how much he could teach Jim, his seemingly bright little foal. With kindness and patience, he taught the horse to count, to distinguish colors and letters of the alphabet, and to add and subtract.
Doc took his prodigy on the road, and for a while, the two met with applause and amazement at fairs, theaters, and arenas. Then a newspaper reporter asked, “How could a little old black man with no education teach a dumb animal to do those things?” Doc didn’t give up, though; he invited some professors at Harvard to examine Jim Key to determine if the horse was, in fact, educated. After they confirmed it, the newspapers set the record straight: “JIM KEY EDUCATED BY KINDNESS.”
McCully, whose sprightly watercolors add charm to this fact-based story, continues to live up to the high standard she has set in her career of writing and illustrating beloved picture books. Those yearning for more details on this amazing man and his horse can find them in the author’s note and bibliography.
Recommended Read-alouds That Call for Kindness to Animals
Note: Please leave a comment with your favorites!
Elliot, David. In the Wild. Illus. by Holly Meade. Candlewick, 2010. Fresh language and stunning woodblock and watercolor illustrations distinguish this engaging collection of poems about wild animals, ranging from the lion to the polar bear.
Kimmel, Eric. Brother Wolf Sister Sparrow: Stories About Saints and Animals. Holiday House, 2003. See the masterfully retold Italian legend “St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio,” in which St. Francis approaches a wolf that’s been terrorizing the town.
Levitin, Sonia. All the Cats in the World. Harcourt, 1984. Powerful story of friendship and kindness. No one can care for all the cats in the world, but everyone can perform acts of kindness, as an elderly woman shows a lonely, bitter old lighthouse keeper.
Meddaugh, Susan. Martha Walks the Dog. Houghton, 1998. Clever Martha uses praise to tame a hostile dog.
Pericoli, Matteo. The True Story of Stellina. Knopf, 2006. Pericoli and his wife, Holly, rescued and raised a finch, Stellina, that had fallen from her nest onto a busy street in New York City. They nurtured the bird in their Manhattan apartment, where she leaned to eat, fly, and sing.
Spencer, Ann. And Round Me Rings: Bell Tales and Folklore. Tundra, 2003. See “Bell of Justice Rings,” a retelling of an Italian folktale, in which a horse calls attention to its mistreatment.