Monday, October 19, 2015

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra

Chronicle Books

Rating: 4 stars

Cornelius Washington is not a typical subject for nonfiction picture books. He was a garbage man in the French Quarter in New Orleans before and when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. He once was written about in the Times-Picayune and described as "a wizard of trash cans."

Cornelius did his job as a garbageman, usually thought of as nasty but necessary, with flair. He seemed to have fun with it, but also take it very seriously. The people in the Quarter knew him and waved as Cornelius danced with lids, threw trash bags into formation, and kept the streets "sparkling."

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Cornelius was devastated to see the city he loved so devastated. Water flooded the city; the city was "a gumbo of mush and mud." New Orleans was destroyed. Cornelius was overwhelmed with the amount of work to do--there was so much to clean up and rebuild. Cornelius, like many others, dried his eyes and got to work. The same people who waved to him weeks and months and years before pitched in to help--the people of New Orleans all helped. And others from far away came to help, too.

(He leaves out the looting and lawlessness--probably a good idea for this age group.)

The story ends the way all picture books do: happily. The city is rebuilt to its former glory in a couple dozen pages. Even though Cornelius Washington passed away soon after Katrina, Bildner writes that he symbolizes the spirit of New Orleans--the determination, flair, and friendliness that will always be a part of the city.

Without getting too stuck in the murkiness of history, I think Bildner does a great job of shining the spotlight on a person who doesn't normally show up in picture books. The quotation at the beginning of the book by Martin Luther King, Jr., sets the scene well:
Even if it's called your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to phase and say, "Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."
Whatever you are, do it well. And Cornelius seems to have done this.

I think it's important to note that Phil Bildner admits to taking some liberty with the true story of Cornelius. He first becomes interested in Cornelius because he sounded like a legend, like a myth, like a story from the American folk tradition. He admits to exaggerating the facts he has about Cornelius in order to carry on the spirit of his story. I hope Cornelius' surviving family supports the book.

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