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The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival: Chicago-Style!

If you have anything remotely to do with kids’ lit in Chicago, get your butt over to the Harold Washington branch of the Chicago Public Library on Wednesday, November 16, from 6 to 8pm in the Pritzer Auditorium, to experience the madness that is the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, the first in what is planned to be an annual video contest where filmmakers of any age compress the stories of Newbery Award-winning books into movies of 90 seconds or less. At each event, the best entires are interspersed with live Newbery-themed entertainment in a sort of cabaret atmosphere. Sound insane? It is, my friend, it is.

Fresh off a standing-room-only presentation at the New York Public Library (and prior to a third screening, sponsored by the Multnomah County Library System, that will take place in Portland, Oregon, on March 3, 2012), I spoke to James Kennedy, author of The Order of Odd-fish and the mad scientist who brought this monster to life.

BKL: Tell me about the New York show and how it might differ from the Chicago version.

KENNEDY: At the New York screening, the show was co-emceed by me and Jon Scieszka, the former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. We were lucky enough to snag a special guest from Rebecca Stead, the author of the Newbery Medal-winning When You Reach Me. Other in-between skits were provided by Ayun Halliday (and her children Milo and India) and the New York writing group Writopia.

At the Chicago screening, the show will be co-emceed by me and Chicago improv comedian Seth Dodson, who will do the show in drag as “the spokesmodel who is everyone’s Mom, SpokesMom.” The show will also feature a live 90-Second Newbery Theme Song and musical improvisations by Abraham Levitan of the band Baby Teeth. Chicago theater groups such as the Neo-Futurists, Elephant and Worm, and Hogwash will perform in-between skits, and there will be short video pieces by young adult author Adam Selzer and 826CHI.

Where did the idea come from? Was any of it an attempt to loosen up perceived stodginess to kids’ book awards?
No, no! Nothing to do with stodginess, perceived or otherwise! The Newbery Award is a power for good. Excellent books like When You Reach Me deserve wide readership, even though they are not as obviously marketable as books about vampires or whatever. At its best, I feel the Newbery focuses attention on worthy books that might not otherwise find the audience they deserve.

For instance, A Wrinkle in Time is one of my favorite books. But I wonder if it would’ve achieved such wide, long-lasting popularity without the boost of the Newbery. I mean, it’s really weird! So one day, while bored at a meeting at work, I began idly writing a script for a comically abbreviated version of it. For fun, I recruited my niece and nephew and their friends to act it out. I shot the the movie in one day with a Flip camera and no budget, and then edited it on iMovie.

It was a labor of love. Even still, the movie inevitably made A Wrinkle in Time look kind of silly. That’s when I realized that any book, no matter how worthy and somber, becomes pleasingly ludicrous when compressed into 90 seconds. And so idea of the film festival popped into my head—a way to appreciate, and perhaps poke affectionate fun at, these children’s classics (or not-so-classics; some Newbery winners, it must be admitted, are terrible, and are ripe targets for satire).

I contacted Betsy Bird of the New York Public Library, who was my partner-in-crime in previous schemes, such as when I daringly stole the Newbery medal from Neil Gaiman at the 2009 ALA Annual Conference. We decided to announce the film festival together. We arranged for the screening at the New York Public Library. Later the Chicago Public Library signed on too.

To my delight, the goofy Wrinkle in Time video I made went semi-viral, showing up on Boing Boing,, the science fiction blog, and getting tweeted by tastemakers like Neil Gaiman. I knew I was on the right track when Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy, who are Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughters, contacted me about helping out the film festival. I’ve since become friends with them! And all from a short video.

How did the process go? I seem to remember it being slow going at first, but in recent months submissions really picked up. How many total submissions did you get?

The contest was announced in January. The deadline was October 15. Naturally we got more videos closer to the deadline. We ended up with over 150 videos—quite a haul, especially for our first year.

Have any of them convinced you to go read books you hadn’t?
Absolutely. I haven’t read Jerry Spinelli’s Wringer, which is about boys wringing the necks of wounded pigeons as part of a civic charity event, but it sounds right up my alley. Also, the video I received of it is so breakneck insane it feels like some kind of experimental arthouse film—it was created by teenaged pigeon fanciers from Boise who own over 100 pigeons, some of whom are featured in the movie.

Another film was done by Max Pitchkites, a high schooler whom I knew from before as the mastermind behind these 28 pieces of brilliant mixed-media fan art he did for my novel. Max and his friends did a masterful 90-second version of 1960 Newbery Medal winner Onion John, a book I had never heard of before. I understand that the book has dated pretty badly, but now I want to read it because of Max’s compelling interpretation—and because I’ve also learned that it’s actually based on a true story.

Tell me about the highlights (and lowlights, if there are any amusing ones) of the NYPL event.

Lowlights? Never! It was highlights from beginning to end.

Scieszka made an ideal co-host, memorably described by Betsy Bird in her write-up as “the gleeful worldly New Yorker with a gleam in his eye” to my “hardworking up-and-comer from Chicago with a chip on his shoulder in the face of Jon’s smugness.” Jon is an old pro at this kind of thing, and we played off each other like a vaudeville team.

One of the subplots of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me involves the heroine’s mother studying to be a contestant on the game show “The $20,000 Pyramid.” So another highlight of the New York screening was getting Stead onstage to play a Newbery-themed version of “The $20,000 Pyramid.” We picked someone out of the audience (whom, as it turned out, had actually been a contestant on the actual “$20,000 Pyramid”) and had her play, with Rebecca feeding her clues to guess the titles of certain Newbery Award-winning books. The contestant was able to choose from three categories, which I believe account for a plurality of Newbery Award winners: books about animals; books about death; and books about animals and death.

We also did another game show segment inspired by the contretemps earlier this year, when the “Today Show” broke with over a decade of precedent and bumped Claire Vanderpool and Erin Stead, newly-minted winners of this Newbery and Caldecott respectively, so they could do a segment about the book written by Snooki of Jersey Shore. I took a bunch of quotes from Newbery winners that sound like they could be by Snooki, and a bunch of quotes from Snooki’s book that sound Newbery-ish, mixed them together, and played a game with a contestant from the audience called “Snooki or Newbery?” in which the contestant tries to guess whether the quote comes from Snooki’s book or a Newbery award-winning book. Interestingly, they got it wrong most of the time. Perhaps Snooki is Newbery-worthy after all?

Do you think making/watching these videos have drawn kids toward the actual books?

I don’t know. I assume they have. Even they haven’t, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all just for fun. I don’t want the stink of “educational activity” to cling to this film festival. I just want to see the weird 90-second versions of beloved Newbery winners. Or even hated Newbery winners.

Will watching the videos encourage anyone to read the books? In most cases, nah, probably not. But who cares? This film festival has no useful motivation. Its object is simply pleasure. People who have read the books represented in the movies will have the pleasure of recognizing the stories and marveling at the filmmaker’s ingenuity of abbreviation. Those who haven’t read the books will be agreeably befuddled at the seeming barrage of accelerated nonsense. Everyone wins.

Is there one trailer in particular you’d like to highlight as a good case study of why this contest is awesome?
There’s two, actually. The first is this Claymation version of Island of the Blue Dolphins by Ananya Kapur and friends from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. It is the bloodiest Claymation I’ve ever seen, and yet utterly faithful to the book:

And here’s an utterly joyous full-scale musical version of one of my Newbery favorites, the 1948 Medalist The Twenty-One Balloons:

Both of these videos are great because they go beyond merely summarizing the book. They transform it into something totally other and unique. That’s the spirit of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, and I hope to see even more of it next year. I hope to see machinima films, stop-motion Lego, Charlotte’s Web done in the style of Eraserhead, a version of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler entirely from Saxonberg’s point of view—and so on. Take this 90-second idea, people, and run with it!



About the Author:

Dan Kraus is Booklist's Editor of Books for Youth. He is also the producer and director of numerous feature films, most notably the documentary Work Series, and the author of several YA novels, including Rotters and Scowler, both of which won the Odyssey Award. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielDKraus.

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