Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Book Review: Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse, by Emily Arnold McCully (Henry Holt & Co., 2010)

Recommended for ages 4-8.  
Kids love animal stories, and they are sure to be amazed by Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Emily Arnold McCully's newest picture book about Jim Key, a 19th century horse who astonished audiences with his incredible talents.

This enchanting book is not just an animal story, however; it is also a story about slavery, the power of kindness and patience, and overcoming prejudice.  Jim's owner, Bill Key, was born a slave in 1833.  McCully's heartwarming water-color illustrations portray the child Bill, already gifted with a special way with animals, surrounded by animals of all kinds, hugging a young calf while slaves work in the field and the mama cow looks on.  We learn that after he was freed, Bill became a veterinarian, known by everyone as Doc Key.  At a time when farm animals were often mistreated, Doc Key advocated kindness to all creatures.  Doc was a talented businessman as well as a vet, and made his fortune with a special medicine called Keystone Liniment, which worked on both humans and animals and helped with a wide variety of ailments.

With his new riches, Doc Key tried to breed the world's fastest racehorse; but the little colt that was born was weak, with crooked legs.  Doc named him Jim, and although racing wasn't in the cards for this baby, Doc soon saw that he was something special; he even played fetch like Doc's dogs!  Hand-raised by Doc, Jim soon  figured out all kinds of tricks without even being taught, including learning how to open and shut the drawer where Doc kept apples as treats.

Doc couldn't help wondering what else Jim might be able to learn; with lots of patience and rewards, Doc taught Jim to recognize the entire alphabet, add and subtract, and recognize primary colors.  Doc decided to take Jim on the road, and audiences couldn't believe their eyes.  Jim was a natural performer, and loved the spotlight.

But when a newspaper reporter questioned whether Jim's intelligence was a fraud, asking "How could a little old black man with no education teach a dumb animal to do those things?" Doc brought in professors from Harvard to test Jim Key.  These experts made Doc wait outside, while they tested the horse.  The results were announced by every newspaper around:  "Jim Key Educated By Kindness."

Jim and Doc travelled the country, sponsored by the Humane Society, even appearing at the St. Louis World Fair, before retiring to a peaceful life on Jim Key Farm.

McCully's vibrantly colored watercolor illustrations capture the excitement that Jim generated among crowds everywhere, and she manages to imbue her paintings of our hero Jim with a special expression of keen intelligence.  She also does a beautiful job capturing the period details in the colorful costumes worn by the many children and adults who are depicted as spectators in the story.

McCully includes an author's note with biographical information on Bill Key and his horse, as well as a brief bibliography.

Adults who are interested in learning more about this remarkable story can turn to Beautiful Jim Key:  The Lost History of a Horse and a Man Who Changed The World, by Mim Eichler Rivas (William Morrow, 2005), and the book's website.

Here is a photo of Jim Key and his owner.  In reading about Jim Key, I discovered that Breyer Horses had made a collectible horse of Jim Key, which is available on-line from some retailers!  The book and horse would make a fabulous birthday or holiday gift for a young horse lover!  This would also be a great read-aloud for teachers or parents to enjoy with young children; there are many lessons to be drawn from the story that could spark discussion.

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