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The Order of Oddfish


25 Successful 90-Second Newbery Videos

July 4, 2013

At the American Library Association annual conference last weekend in Chicago, I spoke about our 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, and it was suggested to me that I should collect all the most popular or successful 90-Second Newbery videos in one place, as a resource for those who want to make their own.

So here it is! A rough-and-ready playlist to demonstrate the possibilities of what you can do in this film festival, and perhaps to inspire one’s own work. (Another resource for 90-Second Newbery participants, particularly first-time videomakers: this helpful curriculum, full of tips, tricks, and strategeies.)

The video that kicked off the film festival was a relatively straightforward adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 Medal winner, A Wrinkle in Time:

I encourage you to be more adventurous than a straightforward adaptation, though. For example, children’s book author Aaron Zenz and his family made this incredible video of Grace Lin’s 2010 Honor book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, done entirely with shadow puppets:

Zenz & Co. also submitted that video to the School Library Journal, and it won one of their Trailee Awards in 2011!

As it happens, the Zenz family also adapted Charlotte’s Web, and put a fun spin on that one, too—retelling it in a musical style, and shot in the style of the opening credits of a 1970s superhero TV show, sung to the tune of “Spider-Man”:

The lesson: make it weird! Don’t just do a straightforward adaptation of the book, put an original spin on it!

The most successful 90-Second Newberys retell the book in an unexpected filmmaking genre. For instance, the next movie is also of Charlotte’s Web, but completely different, because it’s done as a horror movie! It makes sense, actually. The very first line of the book is “Where’s Papa going with that ax?”, the plot hinges around a spider using unnatural powers, at any moment our hero might get butchered and eaten, and it ends with thousands of spiders spawning all over the countryside . . .

CHILLS YET? Also, notice that this one was a bit longer than 90 seconds. That’s okay, as long as the quality is high. We’re unlikely to accept anything that pushes four minutes, but if your entry is super inventive and engaging, we’ll let it slide. Just remember, every second you go over the 90-second limit, the more critical the judges will be. That said, if it really and truly takes a full 3 minutes to culminate your genius vision, go for it!

Or how about doing it in the style of a black-and-white silent movie? Advantages: you don’t have to worry about audio on the set or flubbed lines, you can speed up the film to get that old-fashioned look (making it easier to squeak in under 90 seconds) and use intertitles to move the plot forward. The Aurora Public Library in Illinois ingeniously filmed Avi’s 2003 Medal winning Crispin: The Cross of Lead in the style of a black and white silent movie:

Do you have some talent that can be used in your movie, like singing or songwriting or playing an musical instrument? Elephant and Worm Theater Company of Chicago did this FULL-SCALE MUSICAL of William Pene du Bois’ 1948 Medal winner, The 21 Balloons. If you’re a school librarian, consider teaming up with your music department or art department (for set design) for a truly cross-disciplinary project!

Stop-motion animation is time-consuming, exacting work, but the payoff can be huge. Here’s Jennings Mergenthal and Max Lau’s very funny stop-motion Claymation adaptation of the very first Newbery medal winner from 1922, Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind:

This group specializes in adapting nonfiction historical Newbery winners. Check out their other stop-motion masterpieces: a Claymation version of Jim Murphy’s 2004 Honor Book An American Plague (an account of the Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia in the 1700s) and most recently a Claymation version of Steve Sheinkin’s 2013 Honor Book Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon (which is about the making of the atomic bomb). All of them informative and technically impressive and funny to boot!

Another option if you don’t want to deal with live actors, or want more control over your sets, is to use puppets, like the Bookie Woogie blog did for their adaptation of the “Dragons and Giants” vignette from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together:

As I noted above with Charlotte’s Web, it’s fun to see how different groups handle the same material. Here’s another take on Frog and Toad Together, of the vignette called “The List,” by Sara Truscott of Tacoma, WA. This one brilliantly transforms Frog and Toad into a love story like a Wes Anderson movie or French ye-ye pop music video:

If you’ve read Sid Fleischman’s 1987 Newbery Medal winner The Whipping Boy, you know that it’s a funny adventure about a poor boy who is hired by the royal family to be whipped in the prince’s place when the bratty prince misbehaves (since it’s against the law to hit a prince). The Schaumburg District Township Library took that story to a whole new level by retelling the story in the style of Star Wars, complete with lightsabers, spaceship chase scenes, and lasers! (If you’re interested in adding lightsabers and lasers to your video, check out the easy-to-use SaberFX software.)

That last one had a proper soundtrack, green screen, laser special effects, sound effects, and nutso costumes. But you don’t necessarily need elaborate filmmaking to create a great 90-Second Newbery! Sometimes all you need is a super clever concept, like this other adaptation of The Whipping Boy, this time by Madison Ross of Rochester, New York. The clever concept? Doing the whole thing in questions-only dialogue! Can you tell the entire story of your Newbery book in nothing but questions?

A lot of these Newbery movies have big casts, but you can also do a 90-Second Newbery all by yourself, as a one-person show. Like this fantastic one-man version of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Medal winner The Giver, by Brooklyn up-and-comer Leo Lion:

Here’s another black and white silent movie, this time of Neil Gaiman’s 2009 Medal winner The Graveyard Book. It’s by Word-Play, a summer camp in Toronto. Notice how closely the music reflects the action. This is done in the style of the 1920 German expressionist silent movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. After you watch their movie below, you might be interested in checking out how it compares to the original Dr. Caligari. The 90-Second Newbery can be a way of teaching film history!

Special effects can be a lot of hard work, but it takes nothing but ingenuity, resourcefulness, and careful editing for your movie to be hilarious. Check out this very funny adaptation of Megan Whalen Turner’s 1997 Honor Book The Thief, by kids from St. Andrews Episcopal School in Saratoga, California:

Have you read Margi Preus’ terrific 2011 Honor Book Heart of a Samurai? The kids of Chicago’s Burley Elementary School filmed it in the style of an Akira Kurosawa-style samurai movie—and all in Japanese! (Don’t worry, there are subtitles.) How about teaming up with the language teacher at your school to do The Giver in Spanish? Or Flora and Ulysses in Mandarin? Go for it!

When you embark on a project like this, you may find that even making a movie that’s only 90 seconds long still involves an insane amount of work. The solution? Break the book into four parts, and assign four different groups to adapt the four different parts, each in a different style! Such a fragmented style is particularly well-suited for William Bowen’s 1922 Newbery Medal winner The Olde Tobacco Shoppe: A True Account of What Befell A Little Boy in Search of Adventure, one of the more bonkers entries in the Newbery canon, adapted here by Portland Youth Media’s Thursday Thing media club:

Speaking of Portland, Laurelhurst Elementary School of Portland, Oregon filmed this hard-to-beat Witch of Blackbird Pond as a class project, and it’s fantastic (I love how all the romantic subplots are resolved in 10 seconds):

The folks at Chicago’s Elephant and Worm Theater Company astonish me at how they can whip up great movies, with ingeniously resourceful talent both in front of and behind the camera. Here’s their great adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1972 Medal winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, complete with rat-rap, giant cat, fourth-wall-breaking, and cute costumes:

How about a few more Claymation entries? Ananya Kapur and Friends of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. made this hilarious version of Scott O’Dell’s 1961 Medal-winning Island of the Blue Dolphins. I had forgotten how violent the book is, although much of that violence occurs off-page. No such squeamishness here. Let the clay blood flow:

Now the cousin of the girl who made that Island of the Blue Dolphins, one Quinn Harrelson, was very competitive, and so he decided to make his own Claymation 90-Second Newbery. It’s just as good! Quinn’s entry is of 1939 Honor Book Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater:

Speaking of animals, this paper-puppet version adaptation of Joyce Sidman’s 2011 Honor book of poetry, Dark Emperor and Other Poems of the Night, covers all 12 poems in the book, each about a different night animal. It’s by kids from the Lozano Branch Library in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago:

Here’s another genre twist: taking the medieval soliloquies of Laura Amy Schlitz’s 2008 Newbery Medal winner Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village and putting them in the context of a medieval reality show—yes, “The Real Housewives of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!”

The best genre twists are the ones that seem counterintuitive at first, but on reflection make total sense. For instance, Karen Cushman’s 1996 Medal winner The Midwife’s Apprentice is set in medieval England in the book, but it has the structure of a “stranger-comes-to-town” Western. So why not adapt it using all the stylistic choices and tropes of an old Sergio Leone spaghetti western, complete with old-west slang, cowboy hats, and gunplay?

One of the older titles, Ruth Stiles Gannett’s 1949 Honor Book My Father’s Dragon, here gets a charming straightforward adaptation by Rochester Community Television camp:

OK, we’re almost through! But before we go, here’s one more by the Zenz family. It’s Lloyd Alexander’s 1966 Honor book The Black Cauldron, but in a different style—animating their daughter’s drawings of the book while her voiceover hilariously explains the plot:

Okay, okay! That’s quite enough! Hopefully these exemplary videos are enough to spark your imagination for your own 90-Second Newbery videos. Thank you everyone who made these movies!

Remember this year’s deadline is December 10, 2013! Visit http://www.90secondnewbery.com for complete rules and information about the contest.