Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse (review)
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Reviewed by
McCully, Emily Arnold. Wonder Horse: The True Story of the World's Smartest Horse; written and illus. by Emily Arnold McCully. Holt, 2010 [32p]. ISBN 978-0-8050-8793-2 $16.99 Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 2-4

Now a footnote in history, Jim Key was, at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of the best-known horses in America, and his owner and handler "Doc" Bill Key one of the most respected and successful African-American businessmen. McCully follows their story from Key-the-human's birth into slavery, post–Civil War work as a veterinarian, invention of his wildly successful Keystone Liniment, and love of horses. Key-the-horse was born an unprepossessing and misshapen runt, who gradually won his owner's heart with his clever and playful nature; Doc Key taught Jim how to identify letters and perform mathematics, and the horse turned into not only a famous stage show but also the poster pony for kind treatment of animals ("Jim Key Educated by Kindness," read the newspaper headlines). McCully's compact, picture-book-style story—despite the subtitle, proffered here as a fictionalized tale—can only scratch the surface of this fascinating slice of American history, but she capably touches on the major aspects of Jim and Doc's fame. Though her concluding note is thoughtfully measured in its assessment of Jim's actual intelligence, the main text is affectionately partisan, embracing Jim's abilities wholeheartedly ("Jim spelled, made change from a cash register, danced to music, and bowed to ladies in the audience, flicking his tail and grinning"). While McCully's animals occasionally look a little stiffly assembled, there's a rustic strength to her artwork and an energy to its cast that particularly suits the booming vigor of the time. Young animal lovers will appreciate this as a readaloud as well as a readalone, and it could slide in as an intro to a discussion of Barnumesque period showmen and spectacle. A brief bibliography is included. [End Page 494]