The 90-Second Newbery: Showcasing Kid Filmmakers Inspired by Great Literature

By Jessica A. Kent
Dec. 10, 2018

Have you ever seen Charlotte’s Web interpreted in the style of a horror movie? What about Ramona and Her Father in the style of a James Bond flick? Or Crispin: The Cross of Lead as a black-and-white silent film, complete with piano accompaniment? Or Johnny Tremain as a Star Wars-esque space epic? Or Knee-Knock Rise as an episode of Twin Peaks?

That’s exactly what you’ll find at the 90-Second Newbery film festival, an annual video contest where young filmmakers create short movies that tell the stories of Newbery Medal-winning novels, and are encouraged to put their own unique twist on the way they tell it. Entering its eighth year this Spring, the 90-Second Newbery will be making a stop at the Boston Public Library on April 27, 2019. With the deadline for submissions coming up, we connected with creator James Kennedy about this unique festival and the creative kids that have made it what it is.

The Origins of the 90-Second Newbery

The 90-Second Newbery festival started out of a single video project Kennedy created with his niece and nephew, a short video of A Wrinkle in Time. “We worked on the script together, we shot it together, and I took it and edited it. It came out and I thought, ‘Well, this is really amusing,’” says Kennedy. The idea for the film festival came shortly after, and Kennedy employed the help of Betsy Bird, then a librarian at the New York Public Library, who runs a blog called “Fuse #8,” centered around children’s literature. She was able to post the video - which gained attention from the likes of BuzzFeed and Neil Gaiman - and spread the word about the inaugural call for entries. Kennedy received “this huge rush of movies the very first year,” and the film festival launched in 2011 in Chicago (where Kennedy currently lives), New York City, and Portland. Since then, it has expanded to fifteen cities, including San Antonio, Minneapolis, San Francisco, Tacoma, Rochester, and right here in Boston.

Since 2011, submitted films have moved away from straight-forward retellings to the kind of creative takes on the material mentioned above. Entries have grown, with over 400 submissions last year, and they come from all over the United States and internationally. 155 Newbery Books have been adapted. Filmmakers range in age from elementary school to high school, who create films as individuals, families, groups of friends, or as a class. But who are the kids who are submitting them, and what is the creation process like?

Newbery Medal Focused

There’s a different kind of flavor to having the festival be limited to just Newbery Medal winners and honorees. As Kennedy notes, the “90-Second Newbery” title has a nice ring to it. But beyond the name, focusing on Newbery books serves a few purposes. It points young filmmakers to vetted classics, and away from more popular novels that would be fall-backs in a, say, “Children’s Literature Film Festival.” The first Newbery Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” was granted in 1922, so there are 96 years of winners and honorees to choose from - over 400 titles. And the fact that over 150 of them have been made into films demonstrates that many of the young filmmakers are looking beyond the well-known winners to the deep cuts. In many ways, too, it’s easier to put your own spin on a book that hasn’t been widely interpreted into film or TV (Kennedy still notes, though, that each year he receives around 75 versions of The Giver).

But creating a film isn’t as simple as recording a 90-second vlog or Instastory, doing a book report, or even a trailer. “The idea is to compress the entire story into a very short time and do something weird with it – do Charlotte’s Web but in the style of a horror movie, or do Ramona and Her Father and do it as a musical, or do it in Minecraft. Something that’s going to put some individual twist on the material.” It’s this “weird twist” on the material that’s brought the film festival into its own, and it’s what allows the imagination of the young filmmakers to fly. But creating a movie that condenses the story, is coherently shot and edited, and that will make sense to a stranger isn’t an easy task. Despite the younger generation’s “digital nativism,” at the end of the day they’re still learning to make a film, which requires a learning curve - one that Kennedy helps with.

On the 90-Second Newbery website is a section of recourses, essentially a step-by-step guide on how to make a film, from writing a script and condensing the book, to setting up shots, to editing, to finding sound effects, to creating special effects, and more. Kennedy will also visit schools to kick off the project (many times a 90-Second Newbery video will be a class project, or library initiative), and coach kids through the process. It’s not easy, but the results are incredibly rewarding. “There are a lot of kids that are craftsmen. They put a lot of thought into where they put the camera, how [the movies] are edited,” Kennedy explains. “And I appreciate that, when they approach it, like, ‘I’m going to make something special that I bet a stranger who has no investment in me would enjoy and find compelling.’”

The Filmmakers and Their Work

At a recent meet-and-greet in Boston, Kennedy’s passion for the films was contagious. He was eager to show us the creations from past participants, pulling up video after video to screen a sampling of submissions, and telling us the stories of the young filmmakers behind each one.

One of the stories he tells is around the students of Burley Elementary School in Chicago who wanted to do a film of Heart of a Samurai, by Margi Preus. The twist? They wanted to do it in Japanese. Kennedy, who was overseeing the creation of that class’s videos, had lived in Japan, so was able to translate their script, write out the dialogue phonetically, and held up cue cards off-screen. The students watched Kurosawa films to get their intonation right, found $2 kimonos at a local shop, and constructed the sets themselves (which had to be re-constructed after a good-intentioned janitor mistakenly threw them away). And they made the film they wanted to. The author ended up seeing the film, and loved it so much that she visited the school and met the young filmmakers. There was also a showing at the Japanese consulate in Chicago.

Another story he tells is of Anya Schooler of Portland, OR who works in claymation, and has been submitting movies for years. Kennedy has been able to watch her grow and mature in her craft, from a beginner to a talented animator. Of her, Kennedy notes that “looking back you can watch her claymation develop from when she was just a beginner to something that’s so elaborate and insane that I can’t believe a kid did it. She really started from an absolute beginner when she was 11 or 12, and just stuck at it, and now has mastered claymation.” Last year she submitted a film based on the novel The Apple and the Arrow, about William Tell, complete with sophisticated facial features on the clay characters and uniquely filmed shooting angles.

Similarly, Kennedy tells another story of the Zenz family who has been submitting films since the first year, and who he’s been able to watch grow up in the film submissions, from young voices behind the puppets in early videos to teenagers and young adults in the most recent. He’s gotten to know the family as well, who submit “super elaborate” films each year, and invited the father, a children’s book author, to co-host with him in Lansing, MI.

“The thing that surprises me every year is the high technical level of some kids who get into this, and the cleverness of their concepts. The ebullience and the joy that goes into some of these movies, it’s really inspiring to see,” comments Kennedy about what keeps the festival interesting each year. In scanning through the archives online - the website features a list of all Newbery Medal winners and honorees, and hyperlinks to the video or videos made of that book - the creativity of the filmmakers is immediately evident. Even multiple videos on the same book take it in different directions, from traditional acting, costuming, and sets, to shadow puppets, whiteboard art, hand-drawn and computer animation, LEGO stop-motion, and more. Each filmmaker, or group of filmmakers, is trying to crack the code of storytelling in their own way, using their own unique skills and talents. “What I love is seeing the kids’ creativity in the various ways that they engage with this. Things I never would’ve thought.”

What to Expect at the Festival

At each screening, twenty films are shown: ten of the best, which are screened in every city, and ten that are local to the area, allowing the filmmakers to bring their friends and family to the event. Says Kennedy, “It’s one thing to just put your movie online and it gets a lot of hits, a lot of comments. But there’s something totally other about being in a room, there are 300 other people in that room with you, and they‘re all laughing and clapping for your movie. There’s something more visceral about that.”

Each event is hosted by Kennedy, and co-hosted by a local children’s book author as well (for Boston, it’s M.T. Anderson), and Kennedy launches the event with some theatrics, usually a song or skit created specifically for the event. For example, in 2017, when the event was held at the Brookline Public Library, Kennedy and Anderson sang about the Paul Bunyan-esque status of John Newbery (“When John Newbery blew his nose, punctuations marks would come out!” “John Newbery carved the NYPL lion statues with his own Bowie knife!") to the tune of South Park’s “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” In 2017 in Minneapolis, Kennedy opened the event with co-hosts Kelly Barnhill and Keir Graff, first asking why so many animals die in Newbery Medal books, then rapping their own lyrics to the opening of Hamilton (“What’s this called, man?/90-Second Newbery/This is the 90-Second Newbery/Children’s books transformed into TV/That kids create, just you wait…”). They give commentary between the films, and create a fun, engaging, and highly entertaining atmosphere for the screenings. Sometimes Newbery Medal winning authors will be present to see the videos made about their books. And even if a video isn’t picked for the festival, it will still be posted to the website and receive a critique from Kennedy himself.

Looking Forward

When asked about the future of the festival, Kennedy dramatically exclaims, “More and more cities! More and more movies! I want a 1000 movies every year!” Realistically, he explains that he takes each year at a time. And as long as kids respond well to it and interest continues, the 90-Second Newbery can only grow towards Kennedy’s constructed castles in the air. “Every year, once the season starts, I find myself getting into it, and going, ‘Oh yeah, that’s why I enjoy doing it.’ It’s a lot of fun.”

Visit the 90-Second Newbery website to learn more, view video archives, and get started on making your own film. The official deadline for entries is January 11, 2019, but for Boston-area filmmakers, movies will be accepted as late as mid-March. The 90-Second Newbery film festival will be screening at the Boston Public Library on April 27, 2019 at 2:30pm, with hosts James Kennedy and M.T. Anderson.