For me, Marvelous Cornelius, a picture-book biography fashioned in the style of an American folktale, is one of those kind of books. From the moment I saw the cover, I knew that love was on the menu. Just look at those vibrant colors and how handsome the main character is! And what a marvelous title!
I love how Cornelius's joyous disposition, no matter his humble occupation, glows on each page. I love how Cornelius's infectious smile and friendly greetings light up his neighborhood just like musical notes played on a New Orleans' street corner. And I absolutely love the brightness of hope that resounds in the story despite the darkness that Hurricane Katrina unleashed. But what I appreciate the most is how Cornelius--a hard working, humble man--joined hands with others, especially those who called the French Quarter their home, to bring the brightness back to their community when the waters of Hurricane Katrina receded.
And because I fell in love with this book, I decided to celebrate it by having a Marvelous Cornelius Blog Party in which everyday this week, save Sunday, I'll be featuring six individuals responsible for creating and sharing a most-marvelous picture-book biography. Please join in the celebration by leaving behind your comments.
Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane Katrina & the Spirit of New Orleans is written by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra, and published by Chronicle Books (San Francisco, August 4, 2015). Illustrations (c) John Parra, 2015 used with permission from Chronicle Books, San Francisco. Please visit www.ChronicleBooks.com online.
John Parra: A Most-Marvelous KidLit Artist
As I first read Marvelous Cornelius, I realized right away how powerful and beautiful the narrative was. The story is set in the incredible city of New Orleans, with all its unique and artistic signatures of music, food, architecture, and celebrations. The main character of Cornelius is impressively showcased with a passion and positive enthusiasm for his work and for his neighborhood. As the story progresses, the narrative challenges us with a message of how love and its spirit can function to address serious events that occur in one’s life and community. I saw elements of everyday heroes and community activism that inspired me. For me, Marvelous Cornelius is a story that works on so many wonderful levels. It creates an emotional experience both powerful and simple. It shows us the good we all are capable of.
How did you go about doing research for the illustrations?
Like most projects, I start by researching online and looking for related references, such as images and text, pertaining to any elements described in the story. Through this technique, I begin to enhance my visualization and feelings for the book. Since this book was about a real person, Cornelius Washington, and a real place, New Orleans, these elements are all examined with great detail in the run up to the drawing and sketch process. In addition to the standard references, I love examining the regional artists and cultural aspects established in the book’s setting. Local renowned New Orleans folk artist, Clementine Hunter, had a big visual inspiration for me when thinking about the book. Once research is done, I begin sketching characters and environments looking for pacing and story arcs. Some pages I see clearly in my mind while others require much more work. My goal is to be as comprehensive as possible so that any reader familiar with the setting would feel it to be true and accurate to its presentation but still be accessible and fun for readers of all ages.
Did you find painting Hurricane Katrina's fury on New Orleans emotionally difficult?
It was difficult working on the Hurricane Katrina scenes. At the time I began the project, Hurricane Sandy was hitting New York and causing much destruction. Many people I knew here lost everything. There are of course differences between the two storms, but there is a connection of empathy and understanding that comes from going through something similar.
Describe your painting process for Marvelous Cornelius.
Many people think I paint on wood because of the texture seen in my paintings, but I am actually working on illustration board. There is a process where I add different layers of color acrylic paint to a board. After about four layers, I sandpaper into it to give it a worn and old fashion look that I use for the background foundation. Once ready, I begin to transfer the sketch to the board through masking out shapes and painting various elements. As characters and scenes take shape, the final aspect is to add all the detail and shading to complete the art.
What do you hope children will take away from reading this marvelous (almost-true) picture-book biography?
I do hope they enjoy the story of Cornelius and learn the history of Hurricane Katrina. I hope they reflect and see that no matter who they are in life, where they come from, or what they do, they too can be the best version of themselves, and be a hero and role model to family, friends, and community. That also when difficult things happen in life, it is okay to be sad or upset but to always try and never give up on it, that life is beautiful in so many diverse ways.