Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans
By Phil Bildner. Illustrated by John Parra
44 pp. Chronical Books. $16.99. (Picture book; ages 5 to 8)
Review by Kimberly Medio
Is it possible for a community to find joy in the aftermath of a natural disaster? Are there really any modern-day heroes left in this world? You bet there are! Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans, written by Phil Bilder and illustrated by John Parra, tells of one such hero. Winner of the 2016 Parent’s Choice Book Award and the 2016 Golden Kite Award for picture book illustration, Marvelous Cornelius tells the story of real-life New Orleans sanitation worker, Cornelius Washington, who became a sort of “folk-hero” to the people of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Marvelous Cornelius was known and liked by everyone in the French Quarter in New Orleans. He always said good morning to anyone he met on the street. Cornelius had a way of turning garbage collection into a spectacle-an enjoyment for all to see. His famous call-outs, and back flips, and ways he would toss bag after bag of garbage into his truck made the people of New Orleans love and cherish him. It’s even been said that Cornelius could have the entire French Quarter dancing in the streets just by taking two trash can lids and using them as cymbals. Then one day, the storm came. People, and pets and belongings were all washed away with the great flood. When the water started to recede, Cornelius looked out at devastation left in its wake, and while others were losing hope, he determined that, “his spirit and will were waterproof (Bildner 34).” Cornelius began to clean up and inspired all those around him to help. This inspiration also spread to other towns and cities and soon, people from all over the country were coming to New Orleans to help. It was because of his courageous spirit that Marvelous Cornelius became a part of the spirit of New Orleans forever.
This story teaches children the meaning of having hope, even when things look bleak. It also points out that even in this modern-day world, people still need a hero to look up to, and much like a pebble thrown into a pond, one ripple can lead to many more. Bildner’s inspiration for writing this book came from his experiences of volunteering in the Katrina clean-up efforts. While there, the author spoke with locals who told him many stories, including that of the trash-collector, Cornelius Washington. Through the use of many literary devices such as alliteration, repetition and metaphor, Bildner presents a lyrical story that allows his audience to really get a sense of just why his main character was so marvelous.
Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans isn’t the typical style of book John Parra has been known to illustrate. His previous award-winning works, Round is a Tortilla, and Green is a Chilie Pepper, focus more on his Latino roots. Known for his “callouts” and catch phrases, Parra captures Cornelius’ personality through his bold and vivid painting style. Not only does the story and illustrations give praise to the man known as Cornelius Washington, but also to the New Orleans way of life through the use of specific words and actions common to the culture.
I highly recommend Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans as a great resource for librarians, parents and teachers alike. Its message is clear, strong and concise for children in primary school. I believe the story can spark many meaningful conversations in the classroom and in the home, about the importance of having hope in times of trouble, and that it really does only take one person to make a profound difference in the world.