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The Majesty and Pageantry of the CHICAGO 2020 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

March 19, 2020

Did you enjoy the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival? Do you want us to keep doing it? Then please help us out with a tax-deductible donation. Our fiscal sponsor is Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit arts service organization.

Last Sunday, March 8, what feels like a million years ago, we did the Chicago screening of the ninth annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. We got it in right under the wire—much has changed in just the last few days! This Chicago screening will probably be our last live screening for this spring. Because of coronavirus, unfortunately we are canceling/postponing the March and April shows in Boston, Salt Lake City, Ogden UT, Orem UT, and Boulder CO. (As for the Minneapolis show, we’re going to live-stream it. Details to come.)

What a great show to go out on, though! We packed the Harold Washington Library Center’s Pritzker Auditorium, and my co-host Keir Graff (author of The Phantom Tower and The Matchstick Castle) was, as always, a hilarious and game-for-anything co-host. Check out our opening skit above, in which I’ve Scrooge-ishly “lost the Newbery spirit,” and therefore I’m visited by ghosts of Newbery past, present, and future (all played by Keir) . . . culminating in a rewritten version of “The Greatest Show” from The Greatest Showman (Thanks to Domingo for helping out in the skit!).

After the show we gathered all the young filmmakers onstage. So much talent, all in one place!

Let’s check out the movies themselves! One of the audience favorites was this adaptation of Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery Medal Winner Lincoln: A Photobiography. It’s done by the Zenz family of Spring Lake, MI, who have done so many awesome 90-Second Newberys in the past. Here they tell the story of Lincoln in the form of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton—yes, I give you Abrahamilton:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The Zenz family has done it again! . . . The various songs from Hamilton are rewritten expertly to be about Lincoln, with inventive rhymes and dead-on rhythm. The quick-cutting edits keep up the energy . . . Each of the six perfomers totally sells their song . . . All the performances were astonishingly energetic, poised, and most of all, FUNNY.”

The Zenzes sent their video on to Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, who sent back a thoughtful handwritten personal note! Oh and by the way Aaron himself drew me a wonderful picture for my birthday that I’ll treasure always, which features characters from all of the 90-Second Newberys their family has made over the years:

Another audience favorite was this movie based on Derrick Barnes’s 2018 Newbery Honor Book Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, adapted by Play In A Book & South Shore Fine Arts Summer School in Chicago. It made for one of the sweetest, most joyful 90-Second Newberys of the year:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “A pure delight! The kids’ voiceover readings of the poem from the book were enthusiastic and expressive, really getting across the joy of the book . . . The acting was a pleasure to watch, especially when the girls are cooing ‘He’s so fine!’ and when all the kids are wearing shades and looking cool. The cinematography and editing were polished, and the music choice was perfect . . . I hope this group makes even more movies, they’re natural stars!”

The next three movies are from when I taught a weeklong 90-Second Newbery moviemaking summer workshop in Hinsdale, Illinois. This first one is based on Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Newbery Honor Book Frog and Toad Together, made by Porter and Alec and Friends. It retells the “Dragons and Giants” vignette from the book, but with a twist: what if Frog was a tough-as-nails marine, and Toad was a stealthy, butt-kicking ninja? Yes, it’s Frog and Toad Together as an action movie, with an unexpected twist at the end:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “Fantastic premise, stellar acting, glorious use of green-screen special effects, a fun soundtrack, and a tweaked story of Porter’s and Alec’s invention that somehow still encapsulates the spirit of the gentle original story, even as it goes over-the-top in its action-movie characteristics. Great work from the rest of the group as fighters and fans in the final fighting scene, with wonderful acting when Toad is seemingly defeated. This is so much fun to watch!”

The next movie from Hinsdale is of E.B. White’s 1953 Newbery Honor Book Charlotte’s Web, a stop-motion animation done entirely by Kevin, with voice work from the rest of the workshop attendees:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “This movie is a marvel! Kevin’s drawings are expressive, and he animates them with sophistication and flair. The chattering mouths and blinking eyes and moving eyebrows make the characters seem truly alive — I love the way their expressions are constantly changing, especially when they are responding to each other . . . And everyone’s voice acting is fantastic too!”

The last movie to come out our Hinsdale workshop is based on Katherine Applegate’s 2013 Newbery Medal Winner The One and Only Ivan, adapted by Sarah and Megan and Friends:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “It’s the acting that makes this movie shine! Megan goes all-in with her grumpy, sulky portrayal of the mighty silverback gorilla Ivan, Sarah makes for an endearing Ruby the elephant, and Maddie is a properly tragic Stella the elephant, with a fantastically ludicrous death scene! And speaking of that death scene . . . Ivan’s and Ruby’s extended screaming-and-crying freakout reaction to Stella’s death was masterfully funny . . . the joyful, goofy performances make this a pleasure to watch.”

We got a lot of great movies from outside Chicago this year! The next one is from McHenry, IL, and it’s of Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newbery Medal Winner The Giver, adapted by Peter, Nick, Tyler, Andrew, and Joseph of Montini Catholic Middle School:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “What a funny, resourceful, ingenious movie! . . . The acting was goofy and funny and sarcastic, exactly the right tone. The green screen was artfully deployed throughout (especially at the end, when Jonas is ‘riding’ his bike through the snowy woods!). I appreciated the running jokes, like ‘don’t sass me!’ or the repetition of everyone chorusing ‘OR IS IT?’ / ‘OR WILL THEY?’ . . . The script was clever and crisp, with great lines of understated irony . . . witty, polished, fast, and super well done.”

We also featured a movie from Madison, Wisconsin, and the filmmakers were good enough to come! The next movie is of Victoria Jamieson’s 2016 Newbery Honor Book Roller Girl, adapted by Maya and Lela Desai:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “From the very beginning of this movie I knew I was in good hands, with that beautiful title screen that meticulously recreated the cover of the original graphic novel, complete with matching real-life version of Astrid, all the way down to the color of her clothes and the rainbow socks! . . . The Claymation is so fluid and impressive . . . The music choice of ‘Survivor’ was inspired, the performance was committed and enthusiastic and fun to watch, and the whole thing told the story efficiently and with style!”

I love it when participants make movies for the 90-Second Newbery year after year. The next movie is by another frequent contributor, Riley Levine. You can see all of Riley’s other amazing 90-Second Newbery movies from previous years (going all the way back to 2015!) here. As for this year, Riley gives us an adaptation of Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s 1992 Newbery Medal Winner Shiloh—in the style of a reality show:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “This movie truly nails the style of reality shows, with shots of the various contestants explaining their place in the narrative interspersed with on-location shots of the characters interacting (and I like how Judd was simply identified in the chyron as ‘Animal Abuser’). The histrionic over-acting was perfectly pitched, and the cheesily dramatic reality show music expertly tracked the mood of the show . . . Cheeky, ludicrous fun!”

Speaking of Shiloh, we got another movie of that book, this time made by Lucy D. and friends of Waters Elementary in Chicago, in the style of a trailer for a horror movie:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The spooky music, off-kilter cinematography, and jumpy editing put us in just the right mood for this genre . . . The dog mask was a resourceful touch, and I liked the committed and amusing performances from everyone, expressed through a combination of video clips and still pictures. Great (literal) jump scare at the end!”

We had a good number of movies this year from Chicago’s own Beaubien Elementary! This one is of Thanhha Lai’s 2012 Newbery Honor Book Inside Out and Back Again, and it’s adapted by Benjamin, Albert, Jonathon, and Jerry:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “I loved the flair of this movie, which combines original live-action footage, green screens, and stock video footage and stock photography with a rapid-fire voiceover narration and blink-and-you-miss-it onscreen commentary text to tell the story . . . Sardonic, goofy, and fun to watch!”

The next movie from Beaubien is of Christopher Paul Curtis’s 2000 Newbery Medal Winner Bud, Not Buddy, adapted by Nicki T., Dina G., Jocelyne E., Alexia G., and Christina N.:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “This was a lot of fun! This movie blazed through the plot with goofball speed, and there were a lot of amusing moments along the way, such as the extremely committed fake slap at the beginning, or how Bud points to her grandfather behind his back and whispers ‘he’s my father’ to the audience . . . But my favorite part was the bloopers — especially the deployment of the Katy Perry ‘you have to say you’re fine, but you’re not fine’ meme, and the sunglasses meme.”

The final movie this year from Beaubien is another adaptation of The Giver, this time by Lilah, Grace, Angelica, Annika, Eilee, Rita, and Leigha:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “An excellent movie! It was an effective idea to explain the story in voiceover from various points of view—Jonas, the Giver, and Fiona—while we watch the action of the story play out visually . . . the clear, well-written script got across the most important plot points of the story without bogging down. Great work!”

The Giver is always a popular book to adapt for the 90-Second Newbery. Here’s the third version of the day, by Cedric R. and Ethan M. of Lincoln Hall Middle School—done quite amusingly in an animated style:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “I was blown away by the impressive animation, as well as the humor of the script and the deadpan comic voiceover performances! The background music was perfect for the mood, and I liked the repetition of the explanation of various things: ‘Because you’re the protagonist!’ The creepy way The Giver says ‘Let me touch your forehead so I can give you memories’ was a great detail (there IS something creepy about that Giver, isn’t there?).”

Here’s yet one more adaptation of The Giver, also coming from Lincoln Hall Middle School, adapted by Jonathan L. and Jad D. of Robo Productions. They’ve been making 90-Second Newberys for the past three years (see their movies here), always in Lego stop motion, and they somehow get even better every year:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “The Lego stop-motion of this movie is very impressive, the movements so fluid and smooth! The voiceover performances of all the characters feel convincing and authentic, and there was a good use of well-chosen background music and even the occasional sound effects like applause. I appreciated the careful and varied cinematography—with closeups, two-shots, over-the-shoulder shots, overhead shots, and more—all artfully deployed . . . There was a wonderfully surreal nightmare-moment when our view of the father standing over the ‘released’ baby for a moment becomes the view of some guy with an axe hunched over a dead body . . . Stellar work!”

The next movie we featured from Lincoln Hall Middle School is of Louis Sachar’s 1999 Newbery Medal Winner Holes, adapted by Harry F., Max H., and August B-K.—and it’s done in Minecraft:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “You made great use of the peculiar strengths of Minecraft to tell the story! I was impressed at a lot of your decisions here, like how the camera swoops far above a vast desert (pretty hard to do in real life) and showing the actual digging of holes. The dialogue was punchy and told the story quickly but not too rushed, with room for humor . . . You were even able to wrangle expressiveness from the normally blank-faced Minecraft avatars, particularly the dejected way Zero looked when he said ‘that wasn’t nice of you’ as he stumbled away. Great voiceover performances, and technically impressive!”

The final movie we featured from Lincoln Hall Middle School is of Veera Hiranandani’s 2019 Newbery Honor Book The Night Diary, and it’s adapted by Max, Talia, and Olivia. This one tells the story through song, by rewriting the lyrics to “I Love the Way You Lie” by Rihanna and Eminem:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “I was impressed by both the singing and the rapping, and the lyrics did a good job putting us into the emotional experience of the main character Nisha. I also appreciated the quality of the recording itself . . . it sounded really good! The video images worked well to complement the lyrics . . . This was a great movie!”

We received three other movies from Lincoln Hall Middle School, but there wasn’t enough time in the show (or in this post) to feature them all! But I encourage you to check out Holes by Hanna, Chloe, and Aliyah, as well as this version of The Night Diary by Emma B., Asma P., Maria G., and Lorena S., and this version of The Crossover by Chris and Patrick.

The next movie is of Matthew de la Peña’s 2016 Newbery Medal Winner Last Stop on Market Street, adapted by Laurel H., Frances D., Thuan D., and Finn D. Beware of SOUP SHARKS at the end:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “What a fun and lighthearted adaptation of the book! I loved all the resourceful touches, like how you used a sprinkler to indicate rain, or the wig and shawl used to indicate Nana is a grandma . . . All the performances here were great . . . Fantastic and imaginative!”

The next movie is of Patricia MacLachlan’s 1986 Newbery Medal Winner Sarah, Plain and Tall, adapted by John A., Meg A., Lucie R., Steve R., and Ryan H. of JA Producations in an arty style (and you can see this group’s many past contributions to the film festival here):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “What a gem of a movie! The cinematography was deft and assured, alternating between intense closeups and intimate two-shots indoors to broad, sweeping wide shots outdoors . . . The performances of the children were expressive and heartfelt . . . I loved the shots of Sarah in front of the sea, and particularly how you brought out a suitcase and even a full old-fashioned writing-desk to the beach . . . This movie tells the story in a comprehensive way with style and sensitivity.”

The next movie is of Lois Lowry’s 1990 Newbery Medal Winner Number the Stars, adapted by Lozano Branch of the Chicago Public Library. This one tells the story of resistance to Nazis with a comic book Marvel vs. DC twist:

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery blog (full review here), “I was intrigued by this inventive twist to make Number the Stars be all about the history of comic books, and particular the Marvel and DC factions coming together to defeat the real-life Dr. Frederic Wertham, who in the 1950s argued against comic books as a valid art form. Instead of Annemarie and Ellen subverting the Nazis, it’s Wonder Woman and Black Widow who join forces to defeat the anti-comics forces . . . The music was well-chosen, tracking and expressing the appropriate moods throughout the story, and I liked the resourceful costumes and the back-projection of the DC and Marvel logos, as well as the use of stock footage . . . Creative and odd!”

For the final movie I want to highlight, it’s something I’ve shown on the blog before: Lloyd Alexander’s 1966 Newbery Honor Book The Black Cauldron, adapted by The Leland Street Players in the style of Dungeons and Dragons:

Okay, full disclosure, those are my kids and their friends, I’m not going to spend time praising my own kids’ work! But I think it’s worth watching! (Even though it’s long. Which was my fault.)

. . . And those were the local entries for the 2020 Chicago 90-Second Newbery Film Festival! Thanks so much to Maria Peterson, Alexa Hamilton, Leland Mosley, and everyone at the Chicago Public Library for helping me to put this on. And the biggest thanks of all to the young filmmakers, and their parents, teachers, librarians, and others who helped them make these movies. I’m already looking forward to seeing what you make next year—and it’s not too early to start making your movies now! You can find lots of help at the 90-Second Newbery website, especially screenwriting, cinematography, and editing help at our Video Resources page.

Oh, and if you like what we’re doing here, and want to see it continue into next year, 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.

See you next year!