Jan 12, 2016

Folk Tales and Facts: Marvelous Cornelius (One that got away)

Updating this with a link to one of my earliest posts, explaining why Martin Luther King, Jr is a personal hero of mine. Hope you'll read it here.

Awards season for books for young readers increases in intensity at this time of year. I'm truly a fan of the NERDY BOOK CLUB blog and its decision to name all top contenders as "WINNERS" of their self-named "Nerdies" rather than finalists or honorees or also-rans. Anyone who reads and uses books with others, especially with young readers, knows that as soon as a single "winner" is named, there's a ripple effect of heartache among those whose favorite title just missed the cut. 

Participating as a first round panelist for the Cybils Awards this year in the fiction picture book category was an exciting, demanding, positive experience and one I'd love to repeat in some future year. Narrowing the worthy contenders to seven finalists was far from easy, but was actually less stressful than if I had to name that list myself. I know that the titles we ultimately agreed to send forward (here)  represent a wide range of experienced points of view, a much more fair approach than placing that burden on a single set of shoulders.

One interesting complication, though, had to do with categorizing and defining books. Thankfully, there's a separate set of administrators who determine if books are considered fiction or non-fiction, picture books or early readers or graphic novels, and so on. Once they were in our hands we judged them as fiction. A few raised my eyebrows, appearing to be hybrids of more than one category. Still, that's the way of publishing these days, and I believe we're better off for it when books can be "crossovers", as in music becoming hits in both pop and country genres. Perhaps that genre-bending factor explains why this title wasn't mentioned among the amazing ALA Youth Media Awards (view here).
Chronicle Books, 2015

I'm proud to raise my voice in praise of a book that didn't make the Cybils Fiction Picture Book finalists list, in part because it presented some of those confusions: MARVELOUS CORNELIUS: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans. Written by Phil Bildner and illustrated by John Parra, it's a fictionalized version of an actual resident of New Orleans, a man who spent his life elevating his job as a sanitation worker into a shining inspiration.My second read (because I was still wowed by the quality of the book after the first read) made me wonder if it was or wasn't fiction. I knew it was "based on" a real man. 

The third time through I finally read the back matter. I'm a huge fan of back matter, but tried not too read too early so that the "author's insight" wouldn't shape my reactions in judging the work on its own merits. Too many kids/teachers don't bother with the back content and it shouldn't be exclusively the reason for choosing a book kids will love. However, if it made it into the book it provides a rare opportunity to get a message from the author aimed directly at the reader, almost as a colleague or partner.

In this case, it confirmed what I was thinking, which is that this is NOT biographical, any more that John Henry (which is based on an actual character) is biographical/nonfiction. Cornelius worked in the French Quarter, a place steeped in legendary stories of its own. This book clearly incorporates things that are exaggerated, uses the language and patterns of tall tales, and absolutely captures the larger-than-life quality of a legendary hero in text and image. It represents that amazing ability to appeal to older readers and adults yet the youngest adore its rhythmic, lyrical text, enhanced with repetitions and refrains. It offers delights for the ears and eyes, expanding the action and language with its exaggerated, kid-friendly folk-art illustration style.

This book bounces and  sings, capturing a city and culture as if they are characters. Scenes shift throughout, from the earliest pages where the grittiness is transformed to sparkling and appealing by the spirit (and hard work) of Cornelius. While the pastel and filagreed structures fill the background, mid-ground citizens reflect the vibrant impact of Cornelius and his energetic joy.
Katrina not only flattens the city, it nearly destroys the spirit of those residents. Eventually, the overwhelming destruction of nature's force is countered by even stronger determination, binding and building a community, inspired by the spirit of Cornelius.
Beyond all that, it offers connections to curriculum- geography, careers, infrastructures, the role of government, weather, community action, goal-setting, character development, and more. Young writers can experiment with turning their own local or pop heroes into mythical status using the simple advice offered in Bildner's notes at the back. 
This book incorporates excellent design features, too, with iconography of New Orleans on the end papers, shifting perspectives and proportions throughout, and an introductory quotation by Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior. Before the first word about Cornelius there is a full page spread sharing a quotation by MLK, Jr. about the dignity of work. It's as if he had lived to know Cornelius.  His quote comes from his dealings with the sanitation workers strike, an active stance that resulted in his assassination. 

"All the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 
Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well."

As did Cornelius.

Harcourt Brace & Co.
August, 2015
A graphic nonfiction portrayal of the actual events surrounding Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area was written and illustrated by DON BROWN: DROWNED CITY: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. It is undeniably non-fiction and is the well-deserved winner of the NCTE Orbis Pictus award in that category. 

Pair this with Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans to make history come alive, to bring that time and place "up close and personal" in a very real sense. 

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