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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wonder Horse, written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully. Henry Holt, 2010. $19.99 ages 6 and up

"""Put down your whip!" he would say to a farmer trying to get his tired horse to move. Bill stroked the spot on the animal's neck where its mother once nuzzled.
"All creatures like kindness," Bill advised.
His methods worked. His reputation spread."

I had never heard of Bill 'Doc' Key. Now, I know more about him and have great admiration for his compassion for animals. He was a slave prior to the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. His affinity for the animals he so loved then led him to his work as a veterinarian. He developed Keystone Liniment which proved equally effective for animals and humans. It sold like wildfire. Those sales made him a rich man, and allowed the purchase of a beautiful Arabian mare. His hopes for a champion foal were dashed when her one foal was born with twisted legs.

Doc had no way of knowing how truly special that foal would be. His sadness over the death of the mare was assuaged by the alert and unusually intelligent offspring, named Jim Key. He seemed to watch Doc's every move, learning more as each day passed. He could barely walk when born; his interest in the doings of the world led to games of fetch with a stick. His legs grew stronger, his spirit soared and soon Doc began to recognize his intelligence and wit. That awareness led to Jim Key learning other tricks. He could open drawers filled with apples, recognize the letters of the alphabet, do math, spell and even recognize colors.

Doc was a patient and kind teacher, who knew that Jim Key was special. He wondered if others might be keen to see what he could actually do. He knew that joining a medicine show would bring him fame and help people see how truly intelligent and special animals could be. He hoped that would bring more humane treatment for his beloved patients. Affiliation with the SPCA would make a stronger impression. First, a team of Harvard professors were called in to prove that Jim Key's performance was not a hoax. Assured that it was not, the SPCA agreed to sponsor their touring.  What an impact they had on those who came to see them! After nine years, they retired but Doc never tired of showing visitors and children what Jim had learned.

I have long been an admirer of Emily Arnold McCully's work. Her uncomplicated storytelling sheds light on a time in history when racism reared its ugly head, while also telling the uplifting story of a man whose love and patience proved to the public that animals have an uncanny ability to learn. Her watercolor artwork is suffused with light and brightly colored, offering readers a look back in history to a time when travelling shows offered entertainment, and even enlightenment. 

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