Phil Bildner: A Most-Marvelous Kidlit Author
For several years following Hurricane Katrina, I traveled to New Orleans with teen volunteers to help in the cleanup and recovery. So often I was asked (or told) I should write about my experiences. But I didn’t want to. I knew if I ever ended up writing about any aspect of my time in New Orleans, it would be about someone I met or learned about because each one of those trips was always about the people and community. I learned about Cornelius from Katy Reckdahl, a reporter from the Times-Picayune who spoke to our volunteers. As soon as I did, the light bulb went on.
Please, tell us about the letter you received from Cornelius's mother, Mary Wiley. How were you able to use this primary resource in your text?
Ms. Mary’s letter was an unexpected treasure. And it still is. When I spoke with her on the phone, I learned a tremendous amount about Cornelius. I was able to ascertain a general sense of his life timeline and who he was as a person. But Ms. Mary’s letter provided me with the Cornelius backstory. I was able to understand--or better understand--why he was who he was. The letter enabled me to flesh out Cornelius the character and construct a larger-than-life figure who symbolized so much of what New Orleans is all about.
You used great sensitivity and simplicity to described the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. "But then one day, the storm came. The great city filled with water." As a writer, did this require a lot of restraint? Please explain.
In early drafts, there was significantly more text describing the arrival of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent destruction. But once we started seeing John’s sketches, and then once we saw the final art, it was clear that less was more. The images captured so much of what needed to be said.
What was your emotional response when you first saw John Parra's illustrations for Marvelous Cornelius?
I was really fortunate in that Melissa Manlove, the editor on the project, was kind enough to share John’s early sketches. I was able to see the book slowly coming together, but I don’t think anything could have prepared me for seeing those full color paintings for the first time. Seeing my words come to life in these beautiful folk art illustrations was magical.
When kids, especially those who have been touched by tragic events, read about Marvelous Cornelius from Waterproof, Louisiana what is your hope for them?
I want kids (and adults) who read Marvelous Cornelius to have an enjoyable and rewarding reading experience. For those that have been touched by tragedy, I hope they make text-to-life connections. I hope it helps them recognize and perhaps appreciate on another level the everyday heroes that walk among us.
Phil Bildner taught middle-school in the New York City public schools for eleven years. He is the author of numerous books for kids including A Whole New Ballgame, The Soccer Fence, Twenty-One Elephants, and along with Loren Long, The New York Times bestselling serial, Sluggers. Phil spends much of the year visiting schools around the country conducting writing workshops and teaching process. Find him online at philbildner.com. His Twitter handle is @PhilBildner.