Dec 17, 2016

Meet Doc and Jim Key: An Unforgettable Duo

Serving on a judging panel provides a joyous challenge to read each and every nominated title. On the other hand, it involves rating, ranking, or comparing the relative value of those titles, never an easy task. It means reading with an eye beyond personal taste and preference, or even specific potential uses. 
My approach is to "read" the book as I would any other- both text and images as a whole, as a message from the author/illustrator to me, the reader. 
Only then do I review it again, carefully considering the criteria for the award category. For the Cybils awards we note specific aspects of content, diversity, audience, and mechanics/design beyond the core content.
During that process, many titles move onto my not-so-short-list as I winnow the stacks and stacks of books. As library due dates are triggered, I renew or return, gradually shrinking my too-long-short-list . 
Since this process began, one book held its own among my reading stack. Regardless of its eventual status in our deliberations, I want to be sure readers are aware of it.
Lee & Low Books, 2016

When it comes to audience, this one transcends gender, race, age, and interests. Doc Key was the original horse-whisperer a full century before the book/movie by that title came to be. His life spanned slavery and Jim Crow laws, preceded advanced medicine, and presented many other obstacles. Despite that, his accomplishments have the all makings of a sensational bio-pic. This book will mesmerize modern readers as surely as his live performances did for the viewers who flocked to see Beautiful Jim Key and Doc.

What's not to love about a brilliantly illustrated picture book featuring an inimitable horse, a man of incomparable intelligence and heart, and a portrayal of history that has for too long been ignored? 
STEP RIGHT UP: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, is written by Donna Janell Bowman and illustrated by Daniel Minter. Messages of kindness, patience, determination, and the value of education are rarely effective when explicitly stated, but "Doc" Key made those messages his life's work. As such, they take center stage in this book. This biography portrays the development of "Doc's" earliest values, his ambitious goals and achievements, and the challenges he faced along the way. In doing so, his life exemplifies and shares his messages effectively.

Bowman's text is as impressive and appealing as Minter's linoleum block print/acrylic illustrations, which offer high-contrast intensity and emotional impact. Bowman weaves lyrical descriptions with vivid action verbs and humorous scenes. The opening is a prime example:
"Spring 1889 stretched a blanket of wildflowers over Shelbyville, Tennessee, but William "Doc" Key barely noticed. He paced and fidgeted like an expectant father."

The lives of Doc Key (former enslaved person) and Jim Key (the most amazing horse you'll ever meet, in life or in the pages of a book) are extraordinary and inspiring. The text and the illustrations are equally impressive and do justice to the remarkable subject matter. Back matter/afterward provides further documentation, including archival photos, quotation sources, author's sources, and websites.
This is a virtually untold story that has found its voice.
A particularly powerful example is the author's use of "enslaved person" instead of "slave" throughout the text, which reads naturally and effectively while emphasizing that slavery was (is) a social institution affecting people, not transforming them from people into some other entity, "slave".

This title is a Junior Library Guild selection and received a starred review from Publishers' Weekly. Their review included this: 
"Though debut author Bowman focuses on Doc’s relationship with Jim, a substantial afterword will leave children eager to learn more about Doc Key’s remarkable life, including his reluctant service work with Confederate forces during the Civil War and his efforts to free the enslaved. Ages 7–12."

There's so much more to be said about this book, but my own experience with it says you need to read it and share it, then keep it available for return visits by readers of many ages. Doc Key's examples of kindness, education, and gentleness toward all provide much-needed inspiration, now more than ever. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.