At 3 p.m. on February 1, at the Vittum Theater in Chicago, while the world continues to bask in the glow of ALA’s Youth Media Award announcements—including, of course, the ninety-second annual Newbery medal and honor books—I will be co-hosting the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.
Yes, I misheard that the first time as well, and, yes, it took awhile for the adrenaline to subside when I learned I would not, in fact, be introducing the 92nd Newbery Awards this summer at ALA’s annual conference. But I am still excited. (If you hurry, you might get one of the last tickets.)
Now, I am reasonably often invited to speak at libraries, schools, bookstores, and the inaugurations of towering skyscrapers in Chicago’s financial district. Actually, the last one has yet to happen, but I live in hope. (If you’re reading this, Rahm, my schedule is quite flexible.) Most such requests arrive via the traditional routes: email, U.S. mail, or in a locked briefcase, handcuffed to the wrist of a man whose scarred face bespeaks an intimacy with violence. The invitation to co-host the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, however, arrived via a parchment scroll clutched in a falcon’s talons—a falcon also armed with a small, gleaming sword. Needless to say, this raised questions in my mind about the festival’s founder and other host, James Kennedy. As soon as I had stanched the bleeding from where the falcon attached itself to my arm, I sent my response to Kennedy: a yes, conditional upon his answering a few important questions. The following exchange took place via carrier falcon over some of the coldest days in the history of Chicago.
In 90 seconds or less, what is the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival?
It’s an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create movies that tell the entire stories of Newbery winning books in 90 seconds or less. Next question!
Answered with 82 seconds to spare. Are you an inherently efficient person?
My debut novel (The Order of Odd-Fish) came out in 2008. I haven’t published any books since. So you do the math.
Why, or how, did the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival get started?
I was working at the University of Chicago as a computer programmer. I was in a meeting, my mind was wandering, and I sketched out some ideas for a really short film that would tell the story of A Wrinkle in Time. A few weeks later, I got my niece and nephew and their friends together, we shot the video, I edited it, and I put it online.
WIth the help of kidlit superblogger Betsy Bird, in a matter of days the video had been viewed more than a hundred thousand times. Word got around, and the rest is 90-Second Newbery history.
I gather that you’ve since become something of an expert on the Newbery. What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about this venerable award? Can you bust any myths for us?
Perhaps the most pervasive myth is that children’s books are all written by harmless old ladies with three names. (That’s no knock on harmless old ladies with three names, by the way. Love ‘em. As for harmful old ladies with three names: BRING IT ON. I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU ANY MORE, MOTHER.)
That is to say, many authors of Newbery winning books have lived colorful lives, an indeed have spent a fair amount of time in the slammer! You may have heard how in his misspent youth, the Newbery Medal winner of 2012, Jack Gantos, spent 15 months in the federal pen for smuggling 2000 pounds of hashish from the Virgin Island to the U.S.
So I decided to investigate other Newbery winners to see if they also had unsavory pasts. Many of them did! Can you guess the answers to the questions below?
Answers: A, B, B, and C. All true!
What about Newbery the man? What is the second-most-important thing we should know about him?
Just in the same way that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, John Newbery was neither new, nor a berry. But a man. He was just a man. Think about it.
For me, the selection of A Wrinkle in Time epitomizes what the Newbery is good for: to make a place in the canon for a book that has great merit, but needs help finding its audience.
Do you have a favorite Newbery medal or honor book? A least favorite? Is there one that fails to instill you with any emotional response whatsoever?
My favorite Newbery Medal book will always be Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It’s rare to find a book that is so grippingly emotional while also being so unrepentantly weird. For me, the selection of A Wrinkle in Time epitomizes what the Newbery is good for: to make a place in the canon for a book that has great merit, but needs help finding its audience. Maybe that’s why I decided to inaugurate the film festival with a 90-second version of a A Wrinkle in Time. [An EMBED! Via carrier falcon!—Ed.]
A least favorite? I would not be so ungentlemanly as to cop to a least favorite Newbery winner, although I’ve read some real howlers. And not just those old racist Newbery winners, or the overwritten trudges from the 1920s or whatever—there are a couple of utter stinkers scattered among the winners from the last 10–15 years of Newbery history, too.
Instead of harping on that, though, how about a shout-out to one of the most whacked-out, puzzling Newbery Honor winners—that is, the 1929 Honor winner Millions of Cats by Wanda Gag? This is allegedly a picture book for small children, but at the climax, in a jealous rage to be chosen by an old man to take home, “millions and billions and trillions of cats” literally tear each other to pieces and devour each other until not a trace is left! That’s pretty much the plot! If you consider simply the sheer scale of the killing involved here—”millions and billions and trillions of cats” ARE GRUESOMELY TORN APART BY EACH OTHER within the space of minutes—it becomes clear that this is one of the BLOODIEST BOOKS EVER WRITTEN.
What standout videos have you seen over the years in previous festivals?
There have been so many, but I’ll keep it to three. A stop-motion clay animation of the very first Newbery Medal winner, The Story of Mankind by Hendrick Willem van Loon:
An amazing Muppet-style version of Frog and Toad Together:
Margi Preus’ Honor Book, Heart of a Samurai, done in Japanese, in the style of an Akira Kurosawa movie:
Finally, about the festival itself. What can attendees expect? A librarian friend said that, in performance, you are like Tim Curry in the movie Clue—I guess that makes me Michael McKean?
I’m more like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And you, honey, will be Susan Sarandon.
Seats for the Chicago screening are going fast—reserve yours right now!