Interview with STEP RIGHT UP author, Donna Janell Bowman

This week on EMU’s Debuts, we’re celebrating the release of STEP RIGHT UP: HOW DOC AND JIM KEY TAUGHT THE WORLD ABOUT KINDNESS, written by fellow EMU, Donna Janell Bowman. In today’s world, there seems to be a need for more kindness, towards fellow humans and animals. Donna’s amazing picture book biography shows how one man and one horse began an entire movement, the humane movement to treat animals with kindness. Please join us in celebrating Donna’s debut picture book!

Step Right Up cover hi res

What inspired you to write about Doc Key and Jim?

Oh, gosh, there was so much to be inspired by! Initially, I was drawn to the story because of the remarkable things the horse Beautiful Jim Key was purportedly able to do: spelling, writing, calculating math problems, filing letters, making change from a cash register, and more. That was all so fascinating! As I researched, I became even more enamored with William “Doc” Key, a formerly-enslaved man—the trainer behind Jim’s remarkable kindness-based “education.” Ultimately, I realized that the deeper significance to the story was the duo’s relationship and how, together, they made a profound difference in the humane movement. In a word, this was a story about kindness—a subject that we need more of these days.

Daniel Minter’s artwork is stunning and a perfect match for your story. What did you think when you first saw the artwork for the book?

It is stunning, isn’t it? When I first saw the art, I oohed, and aahed. I might have gotten a bit misty-eyed, too. It felt a bit like meeting Doc and Jim for the first time. What’s interesting is that I’d had a vision of the characters and setting (mostly photo realistic,) in my head for many years before art was done. But, when I saw Daniel’s lino-cut and acrylic illustrations, with a color palette and style that reflect the period, I couldn’t imagine anyone else in the world bringing Doc and Jim to life. Just as my heart is woven into the text, Daniel’s is etched and painted into the images.

You did a fabulous job of showing Doc Key’s core belief of kindness throughout the story. Can you talk a little bit about that? Was it evident in your research? How did you keep the focus tight as you wrote the story? (I ask because this can be challenging when writing nonfiction picture books)

This is a great, multi-layered question. One of the challenges with writing about a historical subject is finding common threads in documentation that help the writer determine the focus. Kindness was a common thread that appeared in promotional pamphlets, quotes by Doc, and newspaper accounts about Beautiful Jim Key performances—all emphasizing that Jim had only ever been treated with kindness. That was in stark contrast to the way most animals were treated in the 19th century. The theme was solidified when I learned of the sponsorship of humane societies, the creation of new humane societies, donated proceeds, the Jim Key Pledge of Kindness, Doc’s Service to Humanity Award, and Jim’s Living Example Award. I even found a photo of a Jim Key horse ambulance, funded by Jim’s performances. This is simplifying it, of course, but you can see how evidence supported the kindness theme.

The other part of your question about focus…well, that’s the biggest challenge of all when writing a picture book biography. Without a tight angle, writing about a notable man’s entire seventy-three years, in the limited space of a picture book, would require the broadest strokes of exposition. For Step Right Up, I chose to focus tightly on the relationship between Doc and Jim, primarily during their training and performance years.

The Author Sources included at the back of the book is extensive. How long did you research before you actually began writing the first draft?

Oh, if only you could see my full list of sources, which is about three times as long as the select list that landed in the back matter. I researched quite a bit before I wrote my first draft back in 2006, and I never stopped researching, right up til the week the book went to print. It’s been so long since my first draft, but I want to say that I put first crappy words on the page about six months into research. The meatiest research came after that first draft. I donned white gloves to peruse crumbling scrapbooks in state library archives, I squinted through microfilm (I even bought my own microfilm copy,) I read hundreds of 1876-1912 newspaper articles, and I travelled to Tennessee for onsite research. And that doesn’t count the books I read about the humane movement, slavery and reconstruction in Tennessee, and animal behavior. In a way, Doc and Jim prepared me for all other books to come.

You were inspired to launch a fundraising effort in conjunction with your book. Tell us about that.  

Yes, I did. What I didn’t mention earlier is that I grew up on a ranch and spent all my free time training for horse shows. I have a deep and abiding love of horses and all animals. They have enriched my life in countless ways. So, with Step Right Up, I saw a way to give back through two efforts. With Lee and Low’s support, I am reviving the original Jim Key Pledge of Kindness, which will be featured later in the week. The second effort is to raise money for an equine humane society. When law enforcement seizes starved, abused, neglected, and stray horses (I’m lumping mules, ponies, donkeys here, too.), they can’t simply take them to the local animal shelter. Large animals are a unique challenge.  It can cost from hundreds to thousands of dollars to rehabilitate a horse nutritionally, medically, and with training. My hope is to use Step Right Up as a way to shine a light on the problem of abuse while helping a worthy organization. I’ve set up a Crowdrise account, benefiting Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society. I think Doc would be pleased. Here’s the link: Step Right Up and Help the Rescued Horses of Bluebonnet Equine Humane Society.


I’m going to steal Jason’s final question in Megan Weber Lloyd’s interview, which he stole from Elaine Vickers interview with Pat Zietlow Miller. Finish this sentence: The perfect reader for this book would be…

The perfect reader for this book would be myself at age nine or ten. Seriously, I would have loved learning about Doc and Jim when I was a kid, which is why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is my debut picture book. But, your question is about other readers, so I think the perfect reader for this book is any kid or adult who loves animals, inspiring stories about perseverance and overcoming obstacles, and stories about the power of kindness.


PierceHeadshotUCLA (2)About Terry Pierce…

Terry writes picture books, easy readers and board books and is whittling away at a middle-grade adventure novel. She lives in the California desert but avoids the summer heat by retreating to Mammoth Lakes every summer to hike, bike, write and dip her head in high mountain sky. She’s a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate and teaches online children’s writing courses for UCLA Extension (go Bruins!).




Filed under Book Launch, Interviews

15 responses to “Interview with STEP RIGHT UP author, Donna Janell Bowman

  1. mariagianferrari

    Wonderful interview, Terry!! And congrats on such a wonderful book, Donna! I cannot wait to read it!! ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, Donna. I’m so, so glad to see this book out in the world. I know it’s been a journey.


  3. Jason Gallaher

    Love it, love it, love it! Can’t wait to grab a copy!


  4. Great interview, you two! I’m looking forward to getting NF my copy!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am thrilled for you, Donna. It’s rare when a labor of love and a masterpiece converge! You have created a wonderful book – and the critics all agree. So many starred reviews. Yay!


  6. WOOHOO! I can’t wait to read this! This book would have been perfect for young child me, and is perfect for old/er me! Congratulations, Donna!


  7. Congrats and happy book birthday, Donna! I love that you’ve revived Jim Key’s Pledge of Kindness. Kudos!


    • Thanks so much, Andrea! I knew from the moment I learned about the pledge, years and years ago, that I would bring it back. It seems doubly important these days. There will soon be a downloadable document on my website. I hope it sparks many conversations with young people.

      Liked by 1 person

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