Author: Phil Bildner
Illustrator: John Parra
Target Ages: 5 and up
Genre: Semi-Biographical Folk Tale
Awards: A full list of Awards and Honors
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 bigger than anyone had
This is the inspiring story of a humble man, and the heroic difference he made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
In the Quarter,
there worked a man
known in New Orleans as Marvelous Cornelius.
“Mornin’.” He saluted the silver haired man with the
Times-Picayune tucked under his arm.
“Greetings.” He waved to the couple
with the baby on the balcony.
“Ma’am.” He nodded to the woman
shaking rugs out at her front window.
He dried his eyes.
For his spirit and will were waterproof.
“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 pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.” –Martin Luther King Jr.
There are several things about this semi-biographical picture book that stand out. I love that the main character is a garbage man, which is a job rarely acknowledged, much less celebrated. Instead, it is often derided for its unsavoriness. I appreciate the author acknowledging such an underappreciated, yet vital occupation.
He incorporates sound words, like “bang” and “whizzing,” and rhythmic lines, like “behind his back/between his legs/into the truck.” Repetitive phrases are used like “washed away” and “bag after bag” to build momentum. Alliteration and rhyme add to the lyrical rhythm as well with lines, such as “tango-ing up Toulouse, Samba-ing down St. Peter. Rumba-ing up Royal.” Together, these elements create an exciting read-a-loud experience.
John Parra textured paintings are full of rich colors and animated action. Young readers gain a glimpse of the architecture and character of the city.
Even though the subject was a real person, the author takes artistic liberties with his story. Cornelius did have calls for his driver, but in the story they have more rhythm and flair: “Woo! Woo! Woooooo!” “Hootie Hoo! Hootie Hooooo!” “Rat-a-tat-TaT!” Also, Cornelius was a showman, but Bildner uses hyperbole to accent this trait. For instance, he “front flipped to the curb and flung the bags over his head” Eventually, they land in “a perfect pyramid inside the hopper’s mental mouth.” To emphasize the vibrant life of the New Orleans community, the people are dancing, playing instruments, and hollering right along with Cornelius.
Hyperbole and figurative elements are also used to describe the storm that creates “a gumbo of mush and mud.” The trash and ruins are depicted as being “high as the steeple stop St. Louis Cathedral,” and he laments it will take “millions” of people to clean up. Each reference drives home the destruction of the storm.
This memorable modern folk tale celebrates an ordinary man doing his part to make his community an extraordinary better place. It is a beautiful illustration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inspiring words to do your job—no matter who lowly by society’s standards—with the gusto of a great artist.
I highly recommend Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans.
Activities and Extension Ideas for Lesson Plans:
- Literature: Read examples of traditional folk tales. Identify the characteristics of these tales. What elements of Cornelius’ story line up with these characteristics?
- Writing: Use this book as a mentor text for creating a folk tale. Students can identify someone who does an important, but undervalued job in the community. Using hyperbole, alliteration, and repetition, embellish and elevate the person’s contribution.
- Sounds: For younger children, help them practice identifying the words with the same beginning sounds. Brainstorm additional words with the same sound. For older children, teach about alliteration. Allow them to practice writing their own alliterative lines.
- History: Gather some newspaper articles about Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Discuss the impact of the natural disaster on the community.
- Science: Read about hurricanes. Identify the difference between a hurricane and a tornado.
- Comparison: Look up some of the sources on the real Cornelius. Compare what the articles reveal about his character to the story elements. Which are real? Which are fictionalized?
- Social Studies: Discuss the important role that trash collectors have on the community. Brainstorm what would happen if all of them went on strike, and there was no one to remove trash from our neighborhoods and businesses.
- Community Service: Identify ways to give back to the community. As a group, pick up trash around the school grounds, neighborhood, or other public area. Show your trash collectors some appreciation by bringing out a small gift when they come around like a cold drink or gift card to a coffee shop.
- Figurative Language: Identify examples of hyperbole. Create hyperbolic statements together or independently. For older children discuss the purpose and role of hyperbole in literature.
Visit HERE for more Perfect Picture Book Recommendations.