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Illustrating the Alphabet, Beginning With 'A'

April 23, 2009 By:
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Four years ago, Temple University Press published the wildly popular P Is for Philadelphia, a bright splash of an alphabet primer that takes young readers -- and adults, if they so choose -- for a tour of the City of Brotherly Love via illustrations done by area public-school children. (A city-wide art contest determined which drawings would be featured.) As might be expected, "A" was for "athlete" and "Z" was for "zoo," and everything else in between, via the illustrious -- and illustrative -- urban landscape that surrounds us all.

Now, Temple has issued A Is for Art Museum, another color-rich alphabet primer, but this time, it focuses upon a single, storied Philadelphia institution. The book, geared for 2- to 5-year-olds, not only takes you for a tour of the world-class piece of architecture that sits -- and fairly dominates -- one end of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, it also deals with concepts like the appreciation of art, various shapes and colors, and the proper etiquette when visiting such a hallowed but undeniably entertaining place. The work yet again fulfills one of Temple Press' major goals: finding riches in your own backyard.

(If you're at all interested in exposing your children to such fanciful works, Temple has another related book called Animals at Play by the renowned ethologist Marc Bekoff, the co-founder, along with Jane Goodall, of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The work is subtitled Rules of the Game and is illustrated by Michael J. DiMotta.)

As for A Is for Art Museum, it is written by Katy Friedland and Marla K. Shoemaker and has a "welcome" to readers from the late, great Anne d'Harnoncourt, the former director and CEO of the museum, who died at far too young an age last year. As Harnoncourt tells young readers (and listeners), during even an unplanned museum visit, "we can travel to another time and place; imagine what it might be like to be a ballet dancer or a medieval knight; or enter into a beautiful universe of lines, shapes and colors."

In this new volume, "A" is, understandably, for "art museum" and "Z" is for "zebra," the animal borrowed from Edward Hicks' 1846 painting called "Noah's Ark." In between are lots of works that visitors to the museum will be familiar with, along with some wonderful surprises. For example, "J" is for "jump," and it shows a particularly bouncy photo by Zoe Strauss called "South Philly (Mattress Flip Front)." I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Then there's "N" is for "neck," a most unexpected entry. The text reads: "Here is a lady with a very long neck. Can you stretch your neck like this?" The illustration comes from the Italian Jewish artist, Amedeo Modigliani, his "Portrait of a Polish Woman," which dates from 1919. Those who know Modigliani will acknowledge that he had a thing for woman with pronounced necks, and so he's the perfect artist to call upon, in this instance and perhaps others.

Or consider the letter "O," which stands for "ostrich."

"This bird," notes the text, "once went round and round a carousel. Imagine you are riding it. Where will you sit? What will you hold on to? What will you say to this ostrich?"

The beautiful plumed bird on display was the creation of the Dentzel Carousel Company, which was in business between 1867 and 1928 in Philadelphia, of all places. This particular wooden ostrich, it says, dates from somewhere between 1903 and 1909. During that time, believe it or not, many employees at the company were Jewish immigrants, some newly arrived to the country. They had been wood-carvers in Central and Eastern Europe, applying their talents generally to religious tasks, but in America they turned to more secular pursuits and carved some of the most beautiful figurines during the height of the carousel craze. (That story was told in another wonderful book, Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses: The Synagogue to the Carousel by Murray Zimiles, published by Brandeis University Press.) 

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