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Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse Hardcover – June 22, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Starred Review. Kindergarten-Grade 2—Based on the true story of a remarkable self-made man whose love for animals won him fame and fortune, this book is sure to grab young readers. Bill "Doc" Key was born a slave and had a special way with animals even as a youngster. Following the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, he worked as a veterinarian and preached the gospel of kindness to all creatures. Despite the racial climate in the Jim Crow South, he joined a medicine show and became wealthy selling a liniment that he invented for both animals and humans. With his newfound wealth, Doc bought a racehorse and bred her in hopes of producing a champion. When the foal was born, his twisted legs meant racing was not in the cards. But Jim Key was an unusual and smart horse, and his antics tickled his owner. Doc set about teaching him to pick out letters and colors, and to count and do arithmetic, and he mastered all of these tasks. Could this horse really do the things he was said to have done? Was it trickery on Doc's part? A team of Harvard professors was brought in to determine exactly what Jim Key could and could not do. McCully's signature watercolors make this title as beautiful as it is fun to read, and its humane message is an important one.—Joan Kindig, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* McCully celebrates the profound bond between humans and animals in this inspiring picture book based on the true story of Bill “Doc” Key and the “wonder horse” he taught to count and spell. Born into slavery in 1833, Key hurdled formidable obstacles for a black man of his time and became a veterinarian and wealthy entrepreneur who held the unusually progressive belief that animals had feelings. Heartbroken after his favorite horse dies while giving birth, Key is delighted when her weak, homely colt, Jim, grows into a strong, affectionate companion: Key even moves his cot into the barn to sleep next to Jim's stall. Recognizing the horse's intelligence, Key begins to teach Jim astonishing tricks, and after he learns to identify letters, add and subtract, and ham it up with dance steps and grins, the duo takes its show on the road. Naysayers suspect trickery, but after Harvard professors vouch for Jim's intelligence, Key and Jim team up with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in traveling shows that remind audiences to treat animals with compassion. Caldecott Medalist McCully's storytelling is as sensitive, engaging, and well paced as her brightly colored, expressive artwork, which highlights the period setting as well as the remarkable friendship between man and horse. An appended author's note discusses the virulent racism Key confronted and fills in more biographical details. A winsome celebration of an extraordinary man and the immeasurable effects of kindness. Preschool-Grade 2. --Gillian Engberg

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 4 - 8 years
  • Grade Level: Preschool and up
  • Lexile Measure: 690L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 32 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); 1 edition (June 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805087931
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805087932
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 0.4 x 11.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #440,186 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Emily Arnold McCully was born left-handed in Galesburg, Illinois. She was a dare-devil tree-climber and ball-player who loved to write stories and illustrate them. Her family moved to New York City and then to a suburb, where she attended school. After college at Brown University, she earned a Master's degree at Columbia University in art history. She worked as a freelance illustrator for magazines, advertisements and book publishers until a radio station commissioned a series of posters showing children playing. The first appeared in subway cars, where it was seen by a children's book editor. It launched a long career, first as an illustrator, then as author/illustrator of picture books. McCully won a Caldecott Medal in 1993. She has two grown sons, one grandson and lives in New York City and Columbia County, N.Y., where she grows flowers and vegetables.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Tejote Bravado on May 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Based on a true story of a horse and black owner, set in the 1860-1880's or so, I think everyone who loves how picture books inform us on historical wonders will truly enjoy this book. This is what I appreciate about picture books. They often provide you with a snapshot (though sometimes lacking meaty detail) of a historical event, figure, or in this case a wonder horse. They can be the first introduction to history's great stories. This one tells the true story of a pre-Civil War black gentleman who becomes free, becomes a vet (wow!), creates a profitable liniment, and trains, through kindness and patience (over years!), a horse to read, spell, know colors, and give cash register change. I enjoyed even more the further details of the man, Bill "Doc" Key, in the back notes as he was amazingly generous (had immense charity) to his slave owner.

My 10 yr old daughter recently picked it out to borrow from our local library. She loves sharing it with her horse-loving (and owning) girl friend. My wife keeps asking, "But is it true?!" I believe it is and wouldn't have learned about it unless this picture book was published.

Teachers today, in their often large classrooms, can be inspired by Doc Key's kindness and patience.

Thank you Emily Arnold McCully for writing, illustrating, and Henry Holt for publishing this book!!!
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Kirsten G. Cutler on August 6, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Charming story told about the real life experience of a young black man who survived to become free after the civil war. He became good at taking care of animals because he believed in treating them with kindness. He made some money by creating a veterinary medicine called Keystone Liniment. He buys an Arabian mare, and breeds her to develop a racehorse. Instead, the horse is born with crippled legs so instead, he teaches the young horse over many years to recognize letters and colors, dance, and make change. An author's note and selected bibliography provide context and additional resources for the curious. The gorgeous illustrations are classic McCully: the foal running and retrieving a stick, sleeping on the floor of the man's house, performing in front of audiences filled with expression, color and realism. This is a must-read in school classrooms.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Dana on February 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
We loved this book! It is based on a true story, so not only are the kids learning about treating animals with kindness, but they are learning about history too! It has such a wonderful message. I love how it has more facts at the end of the story. Other reviewers gave great details! Animal lovers of all ages would enjoy.
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Format: Hardcover
When Bill Key was a young boy, he loved animals. They clustered about in the barnyard waiting for his soothing touch. He wrapped his arms around the neck of a calf and turned his head and leaned close, nestling against that of the calf. When Bill grew up and became a freed man he was destined to become a veterinarian. Doc Key, as he was called, mostly took care of horses. Whenever he saw someone abusing a horse, he would firmly ask them to stop and would exclaim, "All creatures like kindness." Now that was just how Doc felt about the critters of the earth.

Doc Key became rich and famous for his invention, Keystone Liniment, but there was something he would become even more famous for. He heard that a "circus was selling its animals." He spotted an Arabian mare whose flanks were scarred from the whipping she received. Later Lauretta, who "was the smartest horse he'd ever known," had a foal he named "Jim Key," but unfortunately died when Jim was a wobbly colt. Now Jim was even smarter than his mother and it soon became apparent that this little guy was something else!

Doc began to teach him his letters and colors. Now Jim was a big ham, but some people thought he was a faker and a newspaper asked, "Is Horse's Intelligence a Fraud?" No little old uneducated black man and dumb old horse were that smart. A bunch of smart aleck professors from Harvard were going to see if Jim Key "was really educated." Was Jim nothing but a hoax or was he really a wonder horse?

This amazing story about Jim Key, the horse who could read, write, spell and cipher will charm the reader.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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