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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review: Marvelous Cornelius by Phil Bildner

On 12, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

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

From Goodreads: In New Orleans, there lived a man who saw the streets as his calling, and he swept them clean. He danced up one avenue and down another and everyone danced along. The old ladies whistled and whirled. The old men hooted and hollered. The barbers, bead twirlers, and beignet bakers bounded behind that one-man parade. But then came the rising Mississippi—and a storm greater than anyone had seen before. In this heartwarming book about a real garbage man, Phil Bildner and John Parra tell the inspiring story of a humble man and the heroic difference he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

When I first saw this book I wondered if kids knew or cared about Hurricane Katrina. The kids in my classes were all born after the storm and probably have very little awareness of it. That’s probably not true for kids in New Orleans or the surrounding areas, but how much awareness do even they have? After reading the book, though, I don’t think any of that matters. Katrina is never named in the text of the story and it isn’t a book that focuses on the storm per se. Merely, it shows Cornelius rising to the challenge of cleaning up his city and helping his community in the way he knows best even when the task seems insurmountable.

I’m not really clear on what the message is here. Is it that we should be good at whatever it is we find ourselves doing? Is it about the human spirit and its resiliency even in the face of catastrophe? Is it about the specialness of New Orleans itself? Maybe it’s all these things. In the end it doesn’t really matter. I think this would be a great classroom resource for opening up a discussion about how we can help each other after a disaster, not necessarily a disaster. A good entree for talking about how important community is. Even a good discussion starter about what happened in New Orleans during Katrina. I certainly think that is relevant today in light of all the race-related issues our country is facing.

I appreciate that this is a book about a modern African American. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, we have a lot of books that feature African Americans during the slavery era and the Civil Rights era, but lack them in modern day stories. This is more prevalent with Native Nations, but I find it’s true to about African Americans, too.

John Parra’s illustrations are bright and lively and that matches so well with the verve Cornelius brings to his job. The Crescent City, and specifically the French Quarter is recognizable in all the illustrations. Marvelous Cornelius would be a delightful addition to any collection. I don’t think it’s a necessary purchase, but if you’re looking to add diversity to your shelves here’s a great way to do that.

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