Springtime brings thoughts of flowers, outdoor activities, the approach of summer... and the letter V. At least if you've read Susan Korman's latest book, P Is for Philadelphia. A tour through the alphabet, Philadelphia-style, will eventually lead you to "V is for Valley Forge," the historic site of General George Washington's retreat in the winter of 1777 during the Revolutionary War. And the site where spring dawned upon a victorious army.
Following a frigid winter fraught with hunger, disease and death, the spring brought with it a renewed spirit among the troops. (Much like the Delaware Valley's current residents are experiencing during these past balmy days.) Although this site is the only one in the book that falls outside the Philadelphia area, "We just kept coming back to it being such an important part of American history," says Korman, referring to her collaboration with Temple University Press. "It really was the turning point in the war. It was really there, despite the miserable conditions, that [the troops] rallied themselves and learned how to be an army." After garnering support from France, obtaining much-needed supplies, and mustering the strength, determination and skill that their service under General Washington had instilled, the troops marched back into Philadelphia and reclaimed the city from the British.
And now the site that stands among those most famous for our nation's strength, perseverance, bravery and resilience has been commemorated by Kormanand by Keisha Evans, from Hill-Freedman Middle School in Philadelphia, who won the contest to have her picture adorn that chapter's pages.
But visitors to both our city and Korman's book won't want to dwell too long in the log cabins (although they look much more inviting in Evans' rendering than they were in reality)there's a whole alphabet out there to explore!
Turn the pages, drift down the alphabet and stroll through the cobblestone streets to see sites such as Elfreth's Alley, enjoy Philadelphia trademarks such as cheese steaks, and appreciate the rich history that began with William Penn's innovative and progressive vision of the perfect city.
Not only did Penn name the city Philadelphia, which translates from Greek to "City of Brotherly Love," but he planned the city's layout to reflect this concept. "When he designed the city, he wanted it to be more open and he wanted to have no walls so that people of all different backgrounds would feel welcome," says Korman. (One little known fact among many Korman provides is that Penn was once jailed for his ideas.)
Penn's visionary thinking seemed to set the stage for Philadelphia's pioneering tendencies. "I was really struck by how much happened here for the first time," says Korman.
Who, for example, doesn't use the electricity that Benjamin Franklin "discovered" with his famous kite and key, and how many wear his bifocals? Who doesn't benefit from the decree, the United States Constitution, that was drafted right in the middle of our great city? And who doesn't enjoy an authentic Philly cheese steak?
Indeed, 26 letters just scratch the surface of the treasures that lie within our city "walls." According to some kids, E, F, P and S should have been dedicated to our great sports teams (Eagles, Flyers, Phillies and Sixers). Others might wonder how S couldn't have been dedicated to our soft pretzels or T to our Tastykakes. And still others might wonder why K doesn't stand for Kevin Bacon, since he seems to be everywhere, or C for construction, since that, too, seems to be everywhere.
But readers are likely to be inspired and gain a newfound respect for Philadelphia after reading Korman's book. She writes of the city with a tenderness and reverence one would expect from a native resident. Shockingly, however, Korman grew up in New York and only moved to the area 15 years ago to where she currently resides in Yardley. She feels that this distance in fact gave her a certain advantage in writing about the city: "At first I thought maybe I'm not the right person because I'm not a native of Philadelphia, but then I thought it actually gave a little bit of an outsider's perspective. I came to see it as an advantage."
And advantage is what thousands of Philadelphia elementary and middle school students took when they entered the contest sponsored by Temple University Press to select the book's illustrations. After providing paper and crayons to several Philadelphia schools, the publishers left it up to the kids, their creativity and their unique impressions of their city to generate artwork for consideration. After receiving over 4000 entries, which was then whittled down to 500 and then judged by a panel of art experts to yield first-, second- and third-place winning pieces, 28 first-place illustrations were selected (there was a three-way first-place tie for "L is for Leader").
It is this feature that Korman believesand hopeswill be the draw for young children to read the book and inspire them.
"To see a bunch of young kids have a chance to have their illustrations in a book was very exciting. You get the feeling that this could change a life in a significant way or just chart a direction for a young child that may not have seemed possible before. And for their classmates, too."
Although students cannot learn American history without mention of Philadelphia, Korman's book goes beyond basic history lessons, enlivening the alphabet and the city's heritage with obscure facts, intriguing anecdotes and a broad range of information.
"It was just so much fun to learn more about the city and to have an excuse to explore it. Coming from...such a big city, I felt as if I could wrap my arms around Philadelphia in a way I could never do in New York."
While the book is all at once a children's book, a tour guide, a souvenir, and a valuable reference, it serves to remind those of us who reside here how much beauty and extraordinary history we have right in front of us that many of us take for granted.
"We're so fortunate to have [so much history] right here," says Korman. "If you're studying American history, it makes so much sense to go into the city and see it."
And spring is the perfect time to plan a field trip to Valley Forge and beyond!