Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Horse Sense: Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse by Emily Arnold McCully

Bill Key was born a slave on a plantation in 1833. Even as a little boy, he had a special way with animals. He could soothe and he could cure just about any creature.

After the Civil War, Bill Key became a practicing veterinarian and earned the nickname "Doc Key." In time his liniment, blended for horses, became a best-selling remedy for patients, animal and human, and actually made Bill Key a rich man.

As one of his profitable investments, Bill bought a beautiful but obviously abused Arabian mare, whom he named Lauretta, hoping that she would bear a future champion. But his dream was not to be: the foal, called Jim Key, was born with twisted legs and Lauretta soon died. Saddened by the death of his mare, Bill nevertheless raised the youngster with no hopes that he would ever be of any use. Barely able to walk, the colt nevertheless seemed alert and gamely watched Doc as he played fetch with his dogs daily until...

One day Doc felt a nudge on his shoulder. It was Jim Key with a stick in his mouth.

"You want to play fetch?" Doc smiled for the first time in weeks. He threw the stick and Jim stumbled after it. The foal had never taken more than two steps!

Jim picked up the stick and tottered back. He trotted a few feet! Offering the stick, he spread his lips in a grin.

Soon the colt learned other tricks. He knocked at the door every night until Doc let him in and became a nightly boarder until he was too large to get through the door. Doc then gave in and moved his own bed out to the barn to keep his amazing horse company.

Doc knew horses and he could see that Jim was unusually intelligent. Soon he figured out a way to open a drawer where his owner stored apples, had a feast, and closed the drawer behind himself.

"I wonder what else you could learn," Doc wondered. Jim lifted his chin as if to say "Try me!"

With all the patience and kindness he advocated to the owners of the horses he treated, Doc slowly taught Jim Key to recognize the letters of the alphabet one by one. Then he taught him colors and numbers and how to spell and do simple arithmetic with his number cards.

One day watching Jim add and subtract, Doc cried, "Jim, we should go on the road! People will be amazed by how much you know. They will see that animals have feelings and it's wrong to make them suffer!"

Doc and Jim Key were a sensation on the medicine show circuit, as Jim wowed the crowd by making change from a cash register, dancing and bowing for the ladies in the audience, and eventually playing theatres, fairs, and large arenas. Always an advocate for humane treatment of animals, Doc saw an opportunity to affiliate with the new Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and after the skeptical Society arranged for a team of Harvard professors to assure that there was no hoax involved in Jim's performance, they agreed to sponsor the two.

Doc and Jim Key became superstars, touring in their private Pullman car, always teaching their audiences new respect the feelings and intelligence of animals. Thousands of children came to watch Jim's feats and to sign a pledge to treat all animals with kindness. Although after nine years on the road, Doc and Jim Key retired to their farm, Doc was still willing to show off Jim's amazing abilities to any fans who came to visit.

Caldecott Award-winning author-illustrator Emily Arnold McCully in her latest, Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse (Henry Holt, 2010), provides plenty of her winning watercolor illustrations which greatly extend the text, and her direct but fascinating narrative will win new fans for Jim Key among her young readers. It's an amazing story of two remarkable beings, Bill Key who rose from slavery to become both wealthy and influential in the cause of animal welfare and his incredible wonder horse whose intelligence and performing skills has never been equaled. A must-read for animal lovers and an inspiring book for all.

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