The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival: New York Style
If you’ve read my blog in the last year you may have heard me mention a little something called the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Said aloud it sounds like The 92nd Newbery Film Festival (which is not too far off since 2012 will be the 90th Newbery Award). However the entire premise was this: Kids from around the world (yes world) filmed 90-second or so versions of various Newbery Award and Honor books. They sent these books to YA author James Kennedy (of The Order of Odd-Fish) and he collected, curated, organized, tightened, and generally got them into working order. Now James received more than 100 entries, so those were culled down to a select few that he is showing in three theatrical showings. Here in New York our film festival this past Saturday was the first and played in the main branch of the library system. Subsequent showings will be held in Chicago and Portland, Oregon.
For this performance, James had a difficult job ahead of him. Essentially he had to take the best aspects of what you get at your average school play and avoid the pitfalls such performances normally contain. He also had to wrangle some special guests and actors because a festival of just films might be fine, but it wouldn’t be kickin’.
So it was that co-master of ceremonies Jon Scieszka, Newbery Award winner Rebecca Stead, author Ayun Halliday, her hugely talented children India and Milo, and the kids of Writopia Labs all gathered together to put on what I can only call a helluva show.
My job in all of this was simple: Bring water to performers. Keep the calm. Don’t panic. Don’t let the auditorium fill to above capacity.
Well, three out of four ain’t bad, right? Turns out that while I excelled in the calm/no panic/water area, I had a hard time coming down on the auditorium rule. How could I help it? James’s show was clearly a hit. Here’s what it looked like before the latecomers started sneaking in:
I would have been displeased if I hadn’t been so thrilled.
The show started off with a bang. Scieszka and Kennedy brought to mind the old vaudeville acts of old. In their pseudo-tuxes the two managed on the spot to create two characters out of thin air. Jon, the gleeful worldly New Yorker with a gleam in his eye. James, the hardworking up-and-comer form Chicago with a chip on his shoulder in the face of Jon’s smugness.
The show began with James’s version of A Wrinkle in Time, that magnificent video that went viral (90,400 views of it on Vimeo alone). After it ended James reminded everyone that this is going to be an annual film festival. “So if you’re inclined, start thinking about what 90-second Newbery films you might want to do for next year’s film festival. You’ll be thinking, ‘I can do that, but a million times better.’ DO! You don’t have to have a dance party at the end.”
By the way, full credit to James who managed to figure out how to control the lights and play the videos from his laptop so quickly and perfectly that he could M.C. and then switch between live action and film without so much as a glitch.
All this was followed up by two versions of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (James will be posting all the videos on his blog soon, so look for that) one done with cut paper by the Boogie Woogie Kids and one live action from the Abington Friends School in Abington, PA. These kids were the first of many who were present at the showing and they spoke briefly with James and Jon about, amongst other things, how they got their goldfish to talk.
A quick quiz on which author got the most Newberys (“It’s a tie, five, between Laura Ingalls Wilder and Meindert DeJong”) and on to Avi’s Crispin: The Cross of Lead (silent films proved to be a popular way to reduce books down to 90 seconds) and the Boogie Woogie Kids were back with The Black Cauldron.
Then it was time for some skits! Ayun Halliday (author of, amongst other things, Always Lots of Heinies at the Zoo), India, and Milo performed a version of The Midwife’s Apprentice. India was the girl, Ayun the midwife, and Milo the jaded kid narrator commenting on the action. That is, until he realized what exactly it was a midwife does. Then he had the best 6th grader boy reaction. Basically he exited, stage left, screaming.
Here is the audience when asked how many of them had once been babies.
Jon and James were particularly amused by the people who hadn’t raised their hands.
James now revealed that this was an international film festival and showed a New Zealand production of Bridge to Terabithia. It was quite good, though there is no way to show Leslie’s death without making it kinda funny.
This next video was kind of amazing. Some kids in Rochester, New York decided to do Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard. But not only were they going to film it, and not ONLY did they do the whole thing in Sijo poetry, but they managed to get Linda Sue Park herself to appear! Here was the end result:
James brought up two of the girls behind the movie to talk to them about it.
Two picture book winners, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night and ABC Bunny played next. ABC Bunny was apparently set to music by author/illustrator Wanda Gag’s sister Flavia (Jon had a lot of fun with that name). Indeed, if you look on the endpapers of the original book you can see the sheet music. Cutting out the numerous tra-la-la-las, the filmed version fit well into ninety seconds and, as James pointed out, was the only Award or Honor winner whose entire text fit in a video.
Next up, Writopia. It was kind of amazing. Imagine, if you will, a group of kids performing a short play on the creation of the Newbery Award. No, I’m not kidding. First they were introduced . . .
Then they incorporated a rapping portion . . .
Then a young woman that I am going to assume was portraying Anne Carroll Moore (though she was simply referred to as a generic librarian) sang about how important it was for children’s books to have their own award. This was followed with something along the lines of “I hope it goes to Charles Hawes, Bernard Marshall, or Hendrik Willem von Loon. They write all the best books.” I was kind of geeking out by that point.
Then the Newbery fairy arrived. Oh yes. There was a Newbery fairy. As Jon later said, “So that’s why I never win that award. I keep swatting her away!” Note how she’s talking to a kid in some awesome 1920s threads who’s explaining that Frederic G.Melcher has just created the award.
Then the kids wheeled on the aforementioned Hendrik Willem von Loon who was typing out The Story of Mankind. Did I mention that all this was set to music? The typewriter song was particularly good. At some point Hendrik lost “his” mustache, but that was okay. Mustaches are meant to be removed.
Awesome dance sequence.
And here’s the full cast at the end. That guy in the orange cap ended it by suddenly leaping into the air and landing in a split. It happened so fast I wasn’t able to capture it on film.
After it ended James announced, “And now Jon Scieszka will do the splits!” You gotta hand it to Jon. He was game.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond (maybe my favorite video of them all) and Holes played next. This was followed by Ayun Halliday’s game show based on My Side of the Mountain. She made it sound fascinating. I so need to reread that book now.
Next up Twenty-One Balloons (I can NOT get those songs out of my head!!!) and Shiloh by a kid from the Mont Kiara International School. He was an eerily well possessed young man, standing up and answering questions from the hosts. This is a future filmmaker in the works. Note his casual stance.
The Real Housewives of Good Master Sweet Ladies was next, followed by The Giver.
Then it was time for another game show: “Snooki or Newbery?” Basically James explained about the Today Show controversy:
And even included Monica Edinger’s piece, which was nice considering that she was in the audience at the time:
You can read Monica’s encapsulation of this event here, if you want another perspective, by the way.
Anyway, you play “Snooki or Newbery?” by reading various quotes. Some were from Newbery Award winners. Some from Snooki’s book. James did an eerily good job of choosing, getting Scieszka to almost blush when he read an out-of-context quote from Holes. The volunteer selected did very well, particularly when James started adding the word “bodunk” to quotes from The Tale of Despereaux (Monica had to reassure the girls in front of her that DiCamillo did not actually include that word in her book).
Next, two versions of The Whipping Boy, and then from the Sidwell Friends School in Washington D.C. what may be the most violent bit of claymation since the heyday of Celebrity Death Match. It’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and I love how the peaceful music clashes with the action onscreen.
Jon’s cry of “That poor elephant seal!” could be heard long after.
Then came our next special guest. Rebecca Stead! She was given a seat of honor . . .
And then they played one of the versions of When You Reach Me that James had received:
After that there was banter . . .
And then an exciting game show of The $20,000 Pyramid using Newbery books! Rebecca mentioned that her mother had been on the show and then said to the audience, “Was anyone else on it?” One hand flew up, which actually didn’t surprise Ms. Stead. She runs into a lot of former contestants, you see. This particular former contestant was tapped to play the game. The categories were those types of books that win a lot of Newberys. Animals. Death. And Animals & Death.
This was followed by THE BEST video of Onion John you could possibly find. It was so good, in fact, that I got nervous. My children’s room doesn’t have a circulating copy of the book, and I was worried that after seeing the video folks would rush to find it. Before they played the video I recounted the true story behind the book, told best by my co-writer Peter Sieruta on his blog Collecting Children’s Books. The film was fun for a lot of reasons, but best of all was when the kid and Onion John would leap into the air and high-five while the words “BEST FRIENDS” would blare to a guitar chord. It was awesome. If James posts it I’ll be sure to highlight it.
Then it was a video of Wringer, one of The Graveyard Book, and one of The Westing Game. After that video played the girls who had been in it came on stage to sing about that same book to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Firework” (a song that haunts James wherever he may go).
Then finally Charlotte’s Web . . .
And with her kids Ayun Halliday performed the finest freakout I think the South Court Auditorium stage has ever seen. If you’ve never seen an adult have a temper tantrum over Charlotte’s death, you haven’t lived.
The sad thing is that at this point we ran out of time so three remaining videos were never seen. All the same, it was an epic showing. Big time thanks to everyone who participated, everyone who came to watch (particularly the three children’s librarians who came because of this blog!!!), and of course to James Kennedy himself. You put on one heckuva a show, sir. Here’s to the next one!
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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