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The Chicago 90-Second Newbery Film Festival Screening Was a Dream of a Dream!

March 12, 2019

Please donate to the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! It’s tax-deductible. Our fiscal sponsor is Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.

There’s no show like a hometown show! On Sunday, we put on a screening of the EIGHTH ANNUAL 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago. It was the day after my birthday, and we followed up the triumphant show—well, triumphant except for one gigantic blunder on my part, which I’ll get to—with a birthday party at my place.

Once again I took the stage with the hilarious and talented Keir Graff (author of The Matchstick Castle and The Phantom Tower), and we did an opening skit in which THE HIGH SUPREME NEWBERY COUNCIL—that is, Newbery-winning kidlit superstars Kate DiCamillo, Jacqueline Woodson, E.B. White, and Meindert Dejong—tried to shut down the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. This snowballed into a musical number, as per usual, this time sung to the tune of “One Day More” from Les Miserables.

Wait a second—kidlit superstar Meindert Dejong?! Sure, haven’t you heard of him? It’ll all make sense if you watch the opening skit here (and thanks to Amalia for playing the Sergeant-At-Arms of the High Newbery Council):

We also had as a special guest Mary Winn Heider, the author of the hilarious new middle-grade novel The Mortification of Fovea Munson. I read it out loud to my girls when it came out and they loved it. Mary Winn isn’t just an author, she’s a great actor too (indeed, a member of Chicaago’s famous Barrel of Monkeys troupe). Here Mary Winn shows up “late” for the film festival, slightly confused on its premise:

Okay, remember I mentioned I made a blunder at the film festival? It was a really bad one. Due to a mixup with video files, totally my fault, I nearly didn’t show at all this great movie of Louis Sachar’s 1999 Medal Winner Holes made by Norah, Jehan, Virginia, Sofia, and Clodagh of Beaubien Elementary. Luckily right as I was leaving the stage, somebody from Beaubien told me about my mistake, and I rushed back onstage to play it. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the video go full-screen, and so the experience was impaired. I’m really sorry for that. And all the more so because it’s such a great movie. Check it out:

As the judges on the 90-Second Newbery website said (full review here), “This was a tightly scripted, well-shot, full-of-personality adaptation. The green screen was used resourcefully and ingeniously throughout, with a great choice of a variety of backgrounds! The voiceover narration kept the story clear and on track. The script was well-written and so the scenes flowed in a cause-and-effect chain, making the story easy to understand even if one hadn’t read the book . . . And I loved that this movie had actual lizards in it, complete with scary music!”

Beaubien Elementary—students, teachers, families—I’m deeply sorry for the mixup. I hope this doesn’t put you off from participating in the 90-Second Newbery again next year. Beaubien actually submitted lots of great movies this year and you can see them all here.

Let’s check out some of the other movies featured at the screening. For instance, here’s Kate DiCamillo’s 2004 Newbery Medal winner Tale of Despereaux, by the Leland Street Players (I happen to know a few of the actors in this movie):

Every year Ava Levine of Highland Park submits an amazing movie for the 90-Second Newbery. Last year it was Charlotte’s Web in the style of a Michael Bay action movie (here). The year before it was Frog and Toad Together in the style of “Seinfeld” (here and here). This year? An adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1939 Honor Book Mr. Popper’s Penguins:

Read the judges’ full review here, in which they praise the movie as “unhinged and hilarious.” And do yourself a favor and subscribe to Ava’s YouTube channel here to see all her other projects!

You want another reliably brilliant 90-Second Newbery veteran? How about Corbin Stanchfield, whose adaptation of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s 1992 Medal Winner, the boy-and-his-dog story Shiloh with the dog replaced by a bagel, is the stuff of 90-Second Newbery legend. He has done a lot of other great movies too, but never anything as elaborate and hilarious as this adaptation of Elizabeth George Speare’s 1984 Honor Book The Sign of the Beaver:

As the judges noted in part (full review here), “a brilliant, ambitious, bonkers idea to tell the story through ‘seven decades of popular music.’ A charismatic, versatile one-man performance from Corbin carries the entire three-minute movie (and at times Corbin even multiplies himself through the magic of camera trickery). Songs by the Beatles, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Nirvana (in unplugged mode), and more are cleverly rewritten to tell the plot of Sign of the Beaver, culminating in a deliriously fun, energetic rendition of Mark Ronson’s and Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk.’ And best of all, these aren’t karaoke versions of the songs: Corbin arranged, played, recorded, and mixed the music himself.” Check out more of Corbin’s stuff at Corbin Films.

You might remember last year’s Millions of Cats in the style of stop-motion polar bears. Here’s yet another stop-mnotion movie by those filmmakers, John and Meg Alznauer, of Kate DiCamillo’s 2014 Medal Winner Flora & Ulysses:

As the judges said (full review here), “Incredible! Ingenious! . . . I loved, loved, loved this stop-motion animated version of Flora & Ulysses. The paper cut outs were beautifully drawn and impressively articulated, capable of so many movements . . . When the superheroic music swells and Ulysses begins flying, dodging and fluttering through the various plot elements as they stream across the screen, it’s truly inspiring and energizing!”

We also had some great first-time filmmakers for this year’s 90-Second Newbery. Here’s Lloyd Alexander’s 1966 Honor Book The Black Cauldron, by the Dugan Brothers from Chicago, done entirely in clay stop-motion:

As the judges said (full review here), this was “funny, enjoyable, and ambitious . . . The clay figures were impressively detailed (I particularly liked Fflewddur Fflam with his harp) and well-animated (some of my favorite moments are when the Eilonwy’s arrows hurtled through the air, or when Elidyr threw himself into the cauldron). The snarky voiceover narration gave it the just the right ironic tone . . . great work!”

Last year the young filmmakers at the Lozano branch of the Chicago Public Library did a fantastic movie of Gary Paulsen’s 1988 Honor Book Hatchet. This year they’re back with an adaptation of another 90s classic, Sharon Creech’s 1995 Medal Winner Walk Two Moons . . . in the style of an old-fashioned black-and-white noir mystery movie!

In their review, the judges said “the tone was beautifully set right at the start with the Dragnet theme song and voiceover and the blood-red title card. The black-and-white cinematography, crisp editing, and period-sounding soundtrack really gave it the feeling of an old-fashioned detective movie . . . I loved the unhinged performance of Mike Winterbottom!”

We got some inventive and impressive movies from Lincoln Hall Middle School. Here Jason Reynolds’ 2018 Honor Book is adapted with stop-motion Legos by Jonathan and Jad:

The judges said in their review, “A resourceful and at times ingenious retelling of the story through Lego stop-motion . . . Excellent voiceover performances throughout, keeping the various characters who are crowding into the elevator distinct . . . This was a well-shot, crisply edited, appropriately paced movie.”

Layla Ellis did this agreeably psychotic adaptation of Paul Fleischman’s 1989 Medal Winner Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. If you know the book, you know it’s all poems told from the point of view of insects. But what if there’s somebody who doesn’t want to listen to insects spout poetry all day?

As the judges said (full review here), “It was such an inspired, hilarious, unhinged idea for the poetry-reciting insects of Joyful Noise to be relentlessly hunted down and killed by a bug-hating maniac—swatted and splattered by the very book they are quoting! And it’s all the better because the actual poem recitations were well-done.”

We also had some amazing hand-drawn animation from Siena L, Yaretzy M, and Tatevik A. of Edgewood Middle School, with their evocative and thematic interpretation of Jerry Spinneli’s 1991 Medal Winner Maniac Magee:

As the judges said (full review here), “Beautiful animation, very fluid and evocative! I loved the stylish minimalism of these animated black-and-white drawings, telling the story with a series of abstract actions . . . Short and sweet, this movie gives the general idea and atmosphere of the story without getting bogged down in plot details. The music worked well too, changing to suit the action when necessary. This movie was artistic, resourceful, and impressive! Bravo!”

We featured two different local movies based on Matt de la Pena’s 2016 Medal Winner Last Stop on Market Street. This first one is by Lincolnwood Public Library’s Moviemaking Program—headed up by the social media director of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, the indispensable Eti Berland:

As the judges said (full review here), “A colorful, exuberant, resourceful movie! I loved the many vibrant, well-drawn backdrops of cityscapes used throughout, pulling all the scenes together with a consistent and attractive visual style . . . The performances were expressive and authentic, the script lean, the cinematography and editing excellent. A great movie!”

We also got a similarly compelling movie of Last Stop on Market Street from Sophie, Luis, Estrella, Michael, Kayla, Adriana, Sophia, Tania, and Jada of the Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy:

As the judges said (full review here), “A creative retelling of the story, with great acting, cinematography, and editing! I like how some details were swapped out from the original story (a cello instead of a guitar—beautifully played, by the way!) . . . The performances were grounded and realistic and believable, and the tight editing kept everything moving quickly.”

Another great local movie was this version of Jean Fritz’s Honor Book Homesick: My Own Story by Jean Mahony’s 5th Grade class at Glen Grove Elementary School:

As the judges said, “A fast and resourceful retelling of a lesser-known Newbery Honor book! (I appreciate it when we get a book that hasn’t already had a million movies made of it) . . . Clever and entertaining!”

Maritza A., Jenna G., Genesis C., Madelyn C., Nelly S., Jailene G., and Emily O. of Ms. Pappas’ class from Gray Elementary School turned in this intriguing movie of Sharon Bell Mathis’s 1976 Honor Book The Hundred Penny Box:

As the judges said, ” A sensitive and entertaining retelling of a lesser-known but high-quality Newbery Honor book . . . well-crafted and true to the book!”

I was impressed by this adaptation of Russell Freedman’s 1988 Medal Winner Lincoln: A Photobiography by students from the Chicago Filmmakers Summer Camp, which ends with a climactic post-assassination brawl:

As the judges said in their review, “It was a great idea to give this 1800s-era story an appropriately olde-tymey feel by shooting it in black-and-white, with historical-documentary sounding music and no dialogue, making it feel like an early silent movie . . . Very resourcefully told throughout, with great costumes, green screen work, cinematography and editing, and fight choreography! Superb!”

Last but not least, check out Hazel’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2009 Medal Winner The Graveyard Book:

In the words of the judges, “I loved the performances, especially Scarlett’s enthusiastic friendliness, Bod’s confusion and anxiety, and Jack’s maniacal murderousness, which worked particularly well in the scene where Jack confronts Bod with the knife, and glances at the camera in a saucy way . . . a fun, brisk sprint through the book!”

There were so many other great local movies that we received for this year’s film festival, but that’s all we were able to feature at the screening!

I have a lot of people to thank. Thanks to my co-host Keir Graff, special guest Mary Winn Heider, and young actor Amalia for their performances in the opening skit, as well as Sarah (who played Kate DiCamillo), Heather (my wife! who played Jacqueline Woodson), Chris (who played E.B. White) and Alice (who played Meindert Dejong).

Thank you also to the folks at the Harold Washington Library Center—Liz McChesney, Maria Peterson, Mary Beth Mulholland, and Alexandria Trimble—for helping to organize and put on this event. And thanks to Leland and Michael for doing a great job in the tech booth, handling lights and sound. And thanks to Evanston’s Booked bookstore for handling all the bookselling at the event.

And thanks most of all to the young filmmakers, and the parents and teachers and librarians who assisted them in making their movies! Feel inspired to make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery? Submissions for next year are due in January 2020, but really you can turn them in anytime . . . and actually, I prefer that! You can find complete information at the 90-Second Newbery website.

I will leave you with the final montage we showed at the end of the screening:

Please donate to the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! It’s tax-deductible. Our fiscal sponsor is Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.