Step Right Up

I thought Mister Ed was the only talking horse around, but there was a “talking” horse long before televisions existed. Right down the road from here, in Shelbyville, Tennessee, an amazing horse and his owner lived at the turn of the twentieth century! In Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness, Donna Janell Bowman tells this unbelievable story.Step Right UpWilliam “Doc” Key was born into slavery. As he was growing up, he learned about taking care of horses. His mother taught him how to make homemade remedies. By the time he was a young man, William was so good at treating horses’ injuries and sicknesses that everyone called him “Doc.”

Then came the Civil War, and Doc was a free man. He built a new life as a businessman. He created many medicines, including one called Keystone Liniment, which was very popular. Doc bought a medicine wagon and rode from town to town selling the Keystone Liniment.

Doc bought a scrawny gray mare that he named Lauretta. She later gave birth to a sickly colt that could barely walk.

Doc named the baby horse Jim Key and nursed him until he was healthy. Jim followed Doc around and watched Doc’s every move. One day, when Jim saw Doc playing fetch with a dog, Jim tried to join in and brought Doc a stick to throw. Doc soon taught Jim other dog tricks—Jim learned to sit, play dead, act sick, and roll over on cue.

When Jim was about a year old, Lauretta died. Doc was worried about Jim, so he brought the horse into his house to live. Jim lived inside the house until he was too big; then both Doc and Jim moved into the barn. Doc’s training of Jim continued:

When Doc was ready to hitch up the medicine wagon again, he decided to bring Jim along as his newest attraction. Doc held up a bottle of Keystone Liniment and announced for people to gather around. He told the crowd how his sickly, crippled colt had grown strong and healthy. Right on cue, Jim pretended to be sick. He limped and drooped and snorted and wobbled. Then Doc gave Jim a spoonful of medicine and massaged a dollop of liniment into his legs. Suddenly Jim acted well again. He pranced around, frisky as a pup.

The audience clapped and laughed and lined up to buy Doc’s medicines.

At home, Jim watched Doc count money and write letters. One day, Doc’s wife asked Jim if he wanted a piece of apple, and Jim nodded his head. This made Doc wonder what else Jim could learn.

With much patience, Doc taught Jim the alphabet. Over the next seven years, Jim learned how to spell words, add sums, find flags to identify states, move clock hands to tell time, and even write his name on a blackboard with chalk!

People were astounded. Doc explained: “The whip makes horses stubborn and they obey through fear. Kindness, kindness, and more kindness, that’s the way.”

Doc and Jim Key performed around the country, helping to promote the cause of kindness to animals. Humane societies decided that Jim Key was the perfect animal to represent their cause. The humane societies believed that animals were intelligent, capable of emotions, and willing to learn if treated well.

Doc and Jim Key traveled the country for nine years, proving to millions of people that “with kindness, anything is possible.” Let us all remember the lesson they taught.

I had never heard about this astonishing animal before reading this book. I wish I lived back in Doc and Jim Key’s time so that I could see the talented horse in action. Since that is not possible, I am grateful to Ms. Bowman for doing such a wonderful job bringing Jim Key to life for me.

Ms. Bowman is the author of a number of educational books for children, including The Sioux: The Past and Present of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota and The Navajo: The Past and Present of the Diné. Her love of horses is apparent not only in her writing about Jim Key, but also in two other horse books that she has written. Her website, is full of information and resources.

Have you read any great books lately?

The Green Umbrella

When is an umbrella not an umbrella? When it is a boat, or a tent, or a flying machine, of course! Jackie Azúa Kramer turns an umbrella into all of these things and more in The Green Umbrella.
The Green UmbrellaElephant is out for a walk with his green umbrella when he is stopped by a Hedgehog. The Hedgehog insists that the Elephant is carrying his boat. The Elephant tells him that he is mistaken, but offers to share his umbrella to keep the Hedgehog dry.

They meet a Cat, who declares that the umbrella is his tent. Again, the Elephant informs the Cat that he is mistaken, but offers to share his umbrella to keep the Cat dry.

The Elephant, the Hedgehog, and the Cat meet a Bear. The Bear claims the umbrella is his flying machine. Elephant replies that Bear is mistaken. But this time, instead of simply offering to share his umbrella, he shares all of the things that he imagined the umbrella to be when he was a child:

When I was a child I imagined I was a pirate and my umbrella was my sword.

I was a circus acrobat and my umbrella was the balancing pole.

I was a home run hitter and my umbrella was my bat.

The Green Umbrella is a book about imagination, but it is also about kindness. The Elephant shares his umbrella with each animal that stakes a claim on it, offering to keep them dry.

Even after the rain stops and the sun comes out, the Elephant’s kindness shines through. The animals run into an old Rabbit who believes the umbrella is his cane.

“I’m sure you’re mistaken,” sighed the Elephant. “This isn’t your cane. It’s my umbrella which has sheltered me from the rain and the sun.”

The Elephant noticed the old Rabbit wiping his brow from the sun’s heat.

“However, you’re welcome to share it and stay cool,” offered the Elephant opening his umbrella.

“That would be nice,” smiled the old Rabbit.

From these acts of kindness from the Elephant grows a friendship among all five animals—the Elephant, the Hedgehog, the Cat, the Bear, and the old Rabbit.

The Green Umbrella is a delightful tale starring my favorite animal (an elephant) and celebrating the beauty of imagination. I am always thrilled when I see my children using their imagination to turn something ordinary into something extraordinary in their daily play. This book is a charming example of that in storybook form.

The Green Umbrella is the first picture book for both author Jackie Azúa Kramer and illustrator Maral Sassouni. Ms. Sassouni used cut paper collage and painting to create the fun pictures throughout The Green Umbrella. An amazing inside look at how Ms. Sassouni created the pictures can be found in “A Chat With The Creators of the Green Umbrella” on Librarian’s Quest.

Ms. Kramer is online at On her website, you can find information about her latest tour stops, as well as an activity sheet for The Green Umbrella.

Have you read any great books lately?

bunny slopes

Before the snow disappears for good, take the time to enjoy bunny slopes, an interactive skiing book by Claudia Rueda. Even if you can’t ski, you’ll have lots of fun following little bunny on his trip down the slopes!bunny slopes

bunny slopes opens with an invitation from little bunny to join him for a “ski day.” Unfortunately, there is no snow. Little bunny is standing on his skis on bare ground.

That’s where the reader comes in. Little bunny looks out at the reader and says:

Maybe we can make some!

Could you please


the book?

When we read this page, my little one hesitated, then shook the book only a tiny bit.

Ms. Rueda may have anticipated such a tentative response: The illustration on the next page shows that it has started snowing a little, but there’s definitely not enough snow to ski. So little bunny asks the reader to shake the book “much harder.” After that second shake of the book, there is definitely enough snow for skiing!

As the book progresses, the reader is asked to “tap tap tap” the book, to tilt the book, to turn it, and to read part upside down. By the middle of the book, we were giggling as my daughter enthusiastically followed little bunny’s directions. And we “drank” the treat at the end of the book, since we definitely earned it!

I think we read bunny slopes three or four times in a row before we were ready to move on to another book. It is very engaging, and draws young readers in quickly.

bunny slopes is an excellent example of how a picture book can be very successful even while the text remains very simple. The sentences throughout the book are short, and there are not many sentences on each page. A beginning reader could tackle this on his or her own and feel satisfied at having followed each of little bunny’s clear directions.

Claudia Rueda is the author of a number of picture books, including her Cat series (Here Comes The Easter Cat, Here Comes Santa Cat, Here Comes The Tooth Fairy Cat, and Here Comes Valentine Cat). She has a blog at

Have you read any great books lately?


I think Elizabeti, created by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen and illustrated by Christy Hale, is my new favorite picture book character. Elizabeti has been around for a while and is the subject of multiple books by Ms. Stuve-Bodeen, but I just recently discovered her.Elizabeti's dollElizabeti lives in a village in Tanzania. In Elizabeti’s Doll, Elizabeti decides after watching her Mama take care of a new baby that she wants to take care of a new baby too.

She didn’t have a doll, so she went outside and picked up a stick. She tried to hug it, but it poked her and she dropped it on the ground. Then Elizabeti picked up a rock. It was just the right size to hold and it didn’t poke Elizabeti when she hugged it. She kissed the rock and named it Eva.

Elizabeti does everything for Eva that she sees her Mama do for her new brother Obedi. She gives Eva a bath, she feeds Eva, she keeps Eva’s diaper clean, and she carries Eva around on her back while she does her chores.

When Eva gets lost, Elizabeti is heartbroken. No other rock-dolls can take Eva’s place. Elizabeti is inconsolable until Eva turns up in an unexpected place.

Elizabeti’s adventures continue in Mama Elizabeti, which I haven’t found or read yet. I can’t wait to read this second book of the Elizabeti series!Mama ElizabetiWe see Elizabeti again in Elizabeti’s School. Elizabeti is going to school for the first time, so she puts on her new school uniform and shiny new shoes. “No more bare feet! Elizabeti smiled. School must surely be a very special place.”Elizabeti's schoolElizabeti hugs her rock doll Eva, her baby sister, and lets her little brother Obedi give her “a sloppy kiss.”

At school, Elizabeti plays outside with friends until the teacher rings the bell. It is time to go in for class. Elizabeti has trouble paying attention:

The other children started to copy the letters the teacher had written on the blackboard. Elizabeti started to copy them too, but she couldn’t help wondering if Obedi wanted her to take him for a walk or if Eva was feeling lonely, sitting in the corner by herself at home. Elizabeti wondered if they missed her. She was certainly missing them!

By the end of the day, Elizabeti is glad to go home. But she discovers that it is fun to tell her family all the things she has learned at school.

Part of what makes Elizabeti so endearing is the books’ illustrations. The illustrator, Christy Hale, used pictures that Ms. Stuve-Bodeen had from Tanzania for reference. She created fabulous collage paintings for these stories, and has captured Elizabeti perfectly. I love seeing Eva show up again in the pictures in Elizabeti’s School!

Ms. Stuve-Bodeen was inspired to write Elizabeti’s Doll by her experiences serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania. Ms. Stuve-Bodeen won the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award for Elizabetis Doll.

Ms. Stuve-Bodeen has written a number of picture books since her debut with Elizabeti’s Doll. She also writes middle grade and YA novels under the name S.A. Bodeen. Her website is

Have you read any great books lately?


Do you ever wish you could fly up into the sky? I do, and I think that’s why Aberdeen appealed to me.AberdeenIn Aberdeen by Stacey Previn, a little mouse sees a red balloon floating by. The balloon is “taunting Aberdeen as he [tries] to catch it,” and he chases it until he successfully grabs hold of it in the neighbor’s garden.

Aberdeen didn’t mean to fly away. BUT his tail got tangled in the string from the balloon and a gust of wind blew them both up in the air.

With this simple twist of fate, Aberdeen begins his adventure. He gets lost, faces a predator, and needs to find his way home.

Aberdeen didn’t mean to cry. BUT his mama had warned him about owls. He was all alone, and it was getting dark. He missed his mama so badly that he thought he heard her call his name.

Aberdeen is a sweet and simple story of how a mouse’s curiosity gets him in trouble.

The two excerpts I have quoted show the repeating pattern found throughout Ms. Previn’s book: Aberdeen “didn’t mean” to do something, “BUT” then he does (for reasons that are really not his fault). As a parent, I hear a version of this at least a few times each week. Fortunately, my kids have not met with any owls or gotten too lost yet!

The illustrations in Aberdeen are lovely watercolors by Ms. Previn. She has created an adorable little mouse for us to watch as he chases after the balloon. She expertly uses white space in some of her pictures, contrasting those pages with others filled with color and action.

Ms. Previn describes Aberdeen as her “first story book.” She has also authored Find Spot (published in 2014) and If Snowflakes Tasted Like Fruitcake (which was published in late 2016). Ms. Previn says “this story is light and sweet and [she] felt the art needed to have that same warm and fuzzy feeling.” She certainly succeeded!

Ms. Previn is on the web at You can find a link to her blog on that website as well.

Have you read any great books lately?

George Crum and the Saratoga Chip

This colorful picture book tells the story of the invention of the potato chip which, like so many great inventions, was discovered by accident. According to the story told by Gaylia Taylor in George Crum and the Saratoga Chip, potato chips were created by a frustrated chef named George Crum who was trying to satisfy a picky customer.George CrumThe book begins long before George’s famous culinary creation. It starts by telling of George’s childhood in the 1830s in Saratoga Springs, New York.

George was part Native American and part African American. At school, he battled other children’s perceptions that he was inferior to them because they were white. Ms. Taylor discusses this prejudice directly and describes how George fought this discrimination throughout his life.

When he was finished with school, George spent his time fishing and hunting in the nearby Adirondack mountains. One day while he was out hunting, he met a Frenchman, who happened to be an excellent cook. The Frenchman taught George how to cook what he had caught over a campfire.

This experience sparked George’s realization that “he had a passion for cooking.” He began experimenting until he had perfected recipes for the birds, fish, venison, and other game he trapped.

George wanted to show all of Saratoga Springs what a good cook he was. He decided the best way to do this was to become a chef in a restaurant. It wasn’t easy for George to get a job as a chef in those days. Most restaurant owners wouldn’t hire a man of color to be anything but a waiter. George didn’t let that stop him.

George got a job as a chef at one of the best restaurants in Saratoga Springs. He became famous for his cooking, and wealthy, prominent people traveled far distances to eat his dishes.

George found that some of those customers were difficult to please, and he had little patience for them. One day, a fussy customer came in and ordered French-fried potatoes. George was sure they were perfect, but the customer sent them back, claiming they were too thick.

George grabbed a potato and sliced it so thin that when he held a slice up to the light, he could see straight through it. He put them into a pot full of hot oil, and cooked them longer and at a higher temperature than was needed for French fries. When they were done, he piled them onto a plate and served his new creation to the customer himself.

The customer declared them to be “the most delicious potato delicacy she had ever tasted.” And the “Saratoga Chip” was born!

Frank Morrison’s illustrations in this book are amazing. Full of color and detail, they take the reader from the one-room schoolhouse where George could not count to 100, to the beauty of the Adirondack mountains, to the excitement of the kitchen in Moon’s Lake House restaurant. They are a perfect pairing to this story, and will help young readers fully engage with the tale of George Crum. Mr. Morrison’s art is featured on his website:

Have you read any great books lately?

The Valentine Express

In all of the excitement about chocolate and flowers, it wouldn’t hurt for us to stop for a moment for a lesson from the bunnies in The Valentine Express by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace.the valentine expressMinna begins the day at school learning some of the tales of the possible origin of Valentine’s Day (including the story of a man named Valentine, who was kind to children and would send notes signed “from your Valentine”). When lessons are over, the school day includes the typical classroom Valentine’s Day party.

As Minna and her younger brother Pip walk home after school, they run into one of their neighbors. Minna realizes that the grown-ups in their neighborhood might not have received any valentines. So she and Pip decide to make valentines for them.

Minna gets out her art box, filled with colored paper, glue stick, markers, scissors, string, and other crafty things. They work hard to create valentines that will be meaningful for each of the neighbors—for example, a homemade puzzle for the neighbor who they saw walking home holding a package from “The Puzzle Works Shop.”

Once they have a valentine ready for each of their neighbors, they load up Pip’s wagon and become “the Valentine Express.” They deliver valentines, kindness, and joy throughout the neighborhood.

There is so much I love about this book. There is, of course, the overall idea of Minna and Pip deciding to do something thoughtful for others to make them happy. It is such a sweet, simple way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Ms. Wallace has done a wonderful job sharing this ideal without letting the lesson get in the way of the story.

Kindness shows up in The Valentine Express in smaller ways as well. The interactions between Minna and her brother Pip are beautiful, as Minna is always encouraging to her younger brother. For example, after Pip tries (somewhat unsuccessfully) to cut out some construction paper hearts, they have the following exchange:

Pip held something in his hands behind his back. “These are not good hearts, Minna.”

“Can I see?” Minna asked.

Pip put some of his hearts on the table and stuffed the rest into his pocket. “They are my practice hearts.”

Minna thought for a minute. “That’s OK, Pip. You were busy helping me.”

Another charming part of The Valentine Express is that Minna and Pip decide to make the valentines out of basic art supplies. In a time when it has become far too easy to stop by the store for the box of printed valentines, Ms. Wallace has reminded us all how nice homemade valentines can be (she has included a page full of them earlier in the book as well).

Finally, Ms. Wallace has shown exactly what can be done with those art supplies. Using cut paper, scissors, and a glue stick, she made three-dimensional artwork to illustrate The Valentine Express. The effect is inspiring.

Ms. Wallace has a great website at It lists all of her books (there are many!) and provides some cut-paper activities for readers to try at home. You can even make some puppets for a puppet show!

Have you read any great books lately?

Ada Twist, Scientist

Albert Einstein once said: “The important thing is to never stop questioning.” I’m sure this must be the principle that guides young Ada Marie in Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty. For, although she did not speak until the day she turned three, once the floodgates opened, the words and questions kept tumbling out.ada-twistOn the day she turned three, from the top of a grandfather clock, her first word was “WHY?” She continued:

“Why does it tick and why does it tock?” / “Why don’t we call it a granddaughter clock?” / “Why are there pointy things stuck to a rose?” / “Why are there hairs up inside of your nose?”

She started with Why? and then What? How? and When? / By bedtime she came back to Why? once again. / She drifted to sleep as her dazed parents smiled / at the curious thoughts of their curious child, / who wanted to know what the world was about. / They kissed her and whispered, “You’ll figure it out.”

As Ada grew, her questions continued, and everyone recognized that Ada “had all the traits of a great scientist.”

One day, Ada was busy doing what good scientists do, “when a horrible stench whacked her right in the nose—a pungent aroma that curled up her toes.” The book follows her quest to discover what could have made such a terrible smell.

An observant reader will notice the source of the stink and will giggle away at all of Ada’s experiments (experiments that ultimately get her in trouble). Ada’s response to her punishment will send the reader into another round of laughter.

The rhyming by Ms. Beaty is brilliant. It is funny and is easy to read out loud to a young listener. It also celebrates and encourages the young scientists in our midst. After Ada’s parents saw one of her messes:

They watched their young daughter and sighed as they did. / What would they do with this curious kid, / who wanted to know what the world was about? / They smiled and whispered, “We’ll figure it out.”

And that’s what they did—because that’s what you do / when your kid has a passion and heart that is true. / They remade their world—now they’re all in the act / of helping young Ada sort fiction from fact. / She asks lots of questions. How could she resist? / It’s all in the heart of a young scientist.

David Roberts’ illustrations are the perfect match to this great story. He has done a fantastic job creating Ada Twist and giving her personality and life in his pictures. Mr. Roberts used graph paper to some of the illustrations, adding a unique background when Ada’s scientific and inquisitive mind raises questions.

The book contains a short Note From the Author, which I believe merits including here in its entirety:

Women have been scientists for as long as there has been science. They’ve asked questions and looked for answers to the secrets of the universe. Of soil and stars. Stalactites and seahorses. Glaciers and gravity. Brains and black holes. Of everything.

Ada Marie Twist is named for two of the many women whose curiosity and passion led them to make great discoveries. Marie Curie discovered the elements polonium and radium, and her work led to the invention of X-rays. Ada Lovelace was a mathematician and the very first computer programmer.

Thank-you, Ms. Beaty, for such an inspiring statement and a beautiful book.

Andrea Beaty is online at On her website, Ms. Beaty has teachers’ guides for a number of her books, as well as many other downloadables.

Have you read any great books lately?


Ellie is the heartwarming tale of a little elephant, Ellie, who wants to help her friends find a way to save their home. Ellie’s story shows that even someone who may be small and unsure of how she might fit in can make a huge impact.Ellie

Ellie and her friends—Gerard the gorilla, Lucy the giraffe, and some monkeys (who remain unnamed in the book)—live in a zoo. Ellie begins on a bright winter day when zookeeper Walt announces that the zoo is closing.

After the announcement, Ellie and her friends gather to come up with a plan to save the zoo. They decide to “spruce it up.” So they begin cleaning the zoo. But everywhere Ellie tries to help, she is either too little, or the work has already been done.

With a sad look on her face, Ellie searches for Walt so she can ask him to give her a job to do. She finds him painting a building, but before she can ask to be put to work, Walt is called away.

Ellie picks up the paintbrush Walt was holding and decides to give painting a try. Sure enough, she’s a natural—she paints a beautiful sunflower on the side of the building before Walt returns!

When Walt sees her creation, he runs to get more colors for her. Soon, people come from far and wide to see what she can do.

Now, I admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for rainbows—put a rainbow in a book and I’m apt to fall in love with it. Sure enough, as soon as I saw Ellie running alongside a wall painting a rainbow, with a big smile on her face, I was hooked. I didn’t even need to see whether the zoo was saved in the end (I won’t spoil the ending for you—you’ll just have to read it for yourself)!

Ellie was written and illustrated by Mike Wu, who is an animator for Pixar. At Pixar, Mr. Wu worked on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up, and Toy Story 3, among other movies.

Mr. Wu created the illustrations in Ellie using paper, watercolors, pencil, and gouache. His use of space on the page is particularly effective. The book begins with some full-color* spreads. A few pages later, sad Ellie is alone on the page, surrounded by grey and white.

*I’ve put an asterisk next to “full-color” because the pictures at the beginning of the book look like they are full-color—there’s green grass, a little blue for some water, the yellow and brown giraffe, and so on—until Ellie begins to add color in her painting. Then, all of a sudden, there are pinks and purples and reds. And the sky is blue, instead of white as in the beginning of the book. The contrast between the beginning and end of the book makes clear that the early illustrations are not as full-color as they first appear. Compare the paintings of the entrance of the zoo on the two inside covers for a great example of the change in colors.

I read a lovely quote attributed to Mr. Wu about his book in a post called “Fall in Love with ‘Ellie’: A Picture Book by Mike Wu” on International Examiner, which you can read here.

IE: What do you want your readers to take away from the book?

Wu: That everyone has a talent or is good at something. Some find theirs sooner than others but if we work hard and are patient, we can find the one thing we were meant to do and be happy.

Mr. Wu’s website is On his site, you can even buy a signed print of Ellie painting that beautiful rainbow!

Have you read any great books lately?