Cornelius Washington was a New Orleans trash collector. After Hurricane Katrina, despite the devastation and discouragement, he stayed in his job. Trash collectors like Cornelius were vital to making it possible for others, people from New Orleans and all around the country, to clear out the debris left in the wake of the storm and start a new life.
Phil Bildner makes Cornelius into a folk hero–one who piled bags into “perfect pyramids” and who danced in the streets while he picked up trash–who inspires everyone to work together. The language is infectiously bouncy, full of alliteration (“The barbers, bead twirlers and beignet bakers bounded behind the one-man parade” of Cornelius) and onomatopoeia (“Hootie Hoo!”) and fun to read aloud.
The back matter carefully draws a line between the invention that is in the story and the nonfiction basis of that invention:
…while Cornelius was certainly a showman, he may not have twirled lids like tops or clapped them like cymbals. He had signals and calls, but they weren’t the exact ones described here. The garbage bags he threw into his hopper probably didn’t land in perfect pyramids….And though he was celebrated and beloved in his neighborhoods, he was not called Marvelous Cornelius.
But he deserves to be.
This book reminded me of the beauty of a life well-lived and of the power we have as individuals to lift others, even when the problems we face are enormous.
Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans, by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle Books: 2015.