bride of the tornado cover dare to know cover order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish


Another 90-Second Newbery Camp at the Treehouse Museum!

July 22, 2024

For the fourth time, I taught a “How To Make A 90-Second Newbery” moviemaking camp at Ogden, Utah’s Treehouse Children’s Museum! I look forward to this camp every summer. The kids are so creative, energetic, and engaged. My fellow teachers Caden and Will have done this camp with me several times, and they are brilliant at helping the kids realize their cinematic visions. And the whole staff of the Treehouse—Lynne, Rob, Wes, and more—are super helpful and supportive. It’s such a pleasure to return here every summer to teach this camp . . .

And some kids return every year, too! 90-Second Newbery veterans Beau, Parker, Georgia, Beatrice, Kaitlyn, Crewe, and Wren have participated at least one, and in many cases more, of our previous 90-Second Newbery camps in 2023, 2022, and 2019. This year we also had in our camp newcomers Katelyn, Ethan, Jacob, Bennett, Hannah Joy, Delphine, and Olive. I’m looking forward to returning to the Treehouse to show their movies—and the best movies from around the country—at our screening of the 14th annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival on February 22, 2025. Mark your calendar now!

So let’s get to the movies we made that week.

The first movie I want to highlight is based on Louis Sachar’s 1999 Newbery Medal Winner Holes. The original book is about Stanley Yelnats, a boy with a curse on his family. One day expensive shoes fall out of the sky onto Stanley’s head, he is falsely arrested for stealing the shoes, and he is sentenced to Camp Green Lake, a desert prison camp where the warden makes boys dig holes all day looking for lost treasure. Stanley makes friends with a boy named Zero. They rebel against digging holes and run away into the desert, where they break the curse afflicting Stanley’s family, and dig up the treasure the warden had been searching for . . . which rightfully belongs to Stanley!

We like to do these 90-Second Newbery movies with a creative twist. So in this movie, instead of the boy Stanley Yelnats, it’s a girl “Starley Yelrats.” Instead of shoes falling on their head, it’s a fancy dress and a teacup. And instead of going to a work prison camp where boys are forced to dig holes, Starley is sent to a young ladies’ finishing school where the girls are forced to drink 50 cups of tea a day. Just as in the book, in this movie Starley also breaks a generational curse—and there’s a lot more swordfighting in this movie than in the original book! It’s by the group of Bennett, Crewe, Beatrice, and Hannah, with help from the rest of the campers. I give you: TEACUPS!

An original premise, hilarious performances, and masterful swordfighting all combine to make a winner of a movie! Great job! (And I love how in this movie, and all of them, we have so many sets and costumes available at the Treehouse to make the movies look really good.)

The next movie is based on E.B. White’s 1953 Newbery Honor Book Charlotte’s Web. Now, the original story is about a runt pig, Wilbur, who is saved from the ax by kind farmgirl Fern. Wilbur has self-esteem issues, and he is eventually sent to Fern’s uncle’s farm, where he doesn’t fit in with the other animals—and he’s terrified he’s going to be slaughtered and made into bacon. But a kind spider named Charlotte sees the worth in him, and she weaves words into her web above Wilbur’s pigsty, like SOME PIG and RADIANT and TERRIFIC, that convince everyone Wilbur is indeed a special pig. But at the end, Charlotte dies . . . which is pretty sad and dark for a kids book!

Again, we always encourage folks who make 90-Second Newbery movies to put their own weird twist on the story. So this one is done in the style of a cheesy 90s sitcom like Friends or Seinfeld, and it’s by the group of KateLyn (a newcomer), Kaitlyn (a seasoned veteran of the 90-Second Newbery), Georgia, Ethan, and Beau, with help from the other campers.

Very funny performances from everyone. I loved all the classic sitcom touches, like the canned audience reactions, the Seinfeld slap bass for scene transitions, and the opening credits with the Friends theme song . . . with rewritten lyrics sung by the fearless Ethan! I was also very amused by the meta touch of the shell-shocked studio audience at the end.

The third 90-Second Newbery movie we made is based on Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1939 Newbery Honor Book Mr. Popper’s Penguins. The original story is about Mr. Popper, who sends a fan letter to an Antarctic explorer, and unexpectedly receives back a shipment of a male penguin as a surprise gift. This leads to the zoo sending the Popper family a female penguin, which results in lots of baby penguins. To make ends meet, Mr. and Mrs. Popper train the penguins to dance and do tricks, and they take their show on the road.

This movie tells the story from a different angle: as a 1940s detective noir movie in which a private eye is trying to figure out where all the penguins are coming from . . . complete with ominous black-and-white camerawork, hardboiled voiceover, a plot with lots of double-crossing, and one of the weirdest covers of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” that I’ve ever heard. It’s by the group of Parker, Jacob, Delphine, and Wren:

A crackerjack premise, a tight script, brilliant and funny performances, and great camerawork and editing made this one shine. It really nailed the noir tone, and those CGI penguins dancing are both goofy and strangely ominous to me. I loved this movie.

But those aren’t the only movies we made at camp! Just like every year, we kicked off the first day by making practice movies. The only rule was the groups had to script, shoot, and edit a movie all in one day, and the premise had to be about some people pursuing a treasure.

For the first group, the girls Crewe, Beatrice, and Hannah wanted to make a romantic movie, but the sole boy in the group Bennett did not want to. We figured out a compromise: in this movie, Bennett is a cowboy who loves being a bachelor, and Crewe, Beatrice, and Hannah are man-hungry ladies who are ravenous for a boyfriend, and Bennet is the treasure they pursue. Will they get what they want? Will Bennett escape without getting tied down? Let’s find out in “Chasing the Cowboy”:

The second group did a movie about called “Lizard Chicken President” in which the “treasure” that is being sought is a lizard chicken that, if acquired, will allow one to become the President of the United States (timely and topical!):

And here’s another movie in which many treasure hunters—a chef, a witch, and more—are also trying to get a lizard chicken treasure. I particularly liked when “President Horse” is staring pensively out the Oval Office window:

Now of course, at the end of the week we found a lot of unused footage on the iPads the kids used to film the movies, and there was a lot of goofy and funny stuff on them. Caden took the opportunity to edit it all together into a baffling but amusing video:

The Saturday after camp concluded, we showed all of the above movies at a mini-screening at the Treehouse, and all the campers attended, with their friends and family. Then they took me out for ice cream at Farr’s around the corner, just as they had last year! Such a great week. I’m looking forward to many more years of leading this amazing camp!

Inspired to make your own movie for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival? It’s open to anyone around the world, parental help is okay, and the deadline is January 17, 2025. You can find complete details at the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival website. Join the fun!

I review Daniel Handler’s “And Then? And Then? What Else?” for the Wall Street Journal

May 28, 2024

Back in the 2010s I occasionally did book reviews for the Wall Street Journal (you can read them all here). For a while I stopped, but when the editor asked if I’d review Daniel Handler’s new memoir And Then? And Then? What Else? I couldn’t resist taking the assignment. Daniel Handler is the man behind the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” and I loved his Series of Unfortunate Events books and many of his other books too. You can read my positive review of his memoir here here, in which I say “the real treats of this book are Mr. Handler’s infectious delight in literature and the peculiar sensibility through which he sees the world . . . This erudite, vulnerable, funny and idiosyncratic book ranks among his best.”

I’ve met Daniel Handler twice. I like him a lot—he’s a good hang, courteous and friendly and witty. The first time I met him was back in 2013 (gulp, over 10 years ago), when the Chicago Humanities Festival had me do a presentation with him for an evening event for a lot of kids and families. While I appreciated the gig and Handler was great, it was a trainwreck for me, although that was my fault!

Obviously, most of the kids there were big Lemony Snicket fans, and Daniel Handler is an ace showman. (Apparently he’s always known how to handle a crowd. In my research for the WSJ review, I found this video of a teenaged Handler doing a graduation speech at his high school. He kills.) Anyway, I should’ve thought twice when the event organizers told me that Daniel Handler would go first, and I would follow him.

Huh? Shouldn’t the bigger name go last? Well, no, the organizers told me, in this case these hundreds of kids wanted their books signed by Daniel Handler, which gave them a logistical problem of what the kids would do while waiting. Their solution: divide the audience into groups A, B, C, D, and E. After Handler finished his bit, he would start signing while I did my presentation. And so, hilariously and humiliatingly, as I did my presentation, every 10 minutes a stentorian voice would come over the P.A. and interrupt me with an announcement like “GROUP D, LEMONY SNICKET IS READY FOR YOU” and an entire fifth of my audience would stand up and walk out.

It didn’t help that I gave one of my most bizarre and alienating presentations ever. I completely misread the room, and prepared a speech that only puzzled and frightened the children. The idea of it, and here I quote from my speech (you can read the whole thing here), was that

“Lemony Snicket is a kind of growth I have exhibited since infancy, an errant polyp, a dermatological curiosity, a kind of sentient tumor I had that, far from causing me discomfort or inconvenience, provided companionship throughout my difficult childhood.”

Then I put up on the screen many photos of a miniature but fully adult Daniel Handler appearing as a “sentient tumor” growing out of my body, throughout my childhood:

“Medically improbable and yet indisputably real, this homonculoid Lemony Snicket would intermittently manifest on my dermis as a kind of itinerant swelling, a lumpish excrescence—a fully adult, well-dressed, miniaturized LITERARY GENTLEMAN sprouting at some times on my forehead, other times on my neck, or my back, or elsewhere; this Lemony Snicket polyp, I hasten to stress, was not a hindrance to me, but rather a blessing, a BOSOM FRIEND and BOON COMPANION.”

And then I went on to reveal that, my nervous parents had Lemony Snicket surgically removed from my body, and we went our separate ways—but now, tonight, because of a number of terrifying and apocalyptic signs and wonders, Lemony Snicket and I would be surgically reunited again, even though it was almost certain to cause the end of the world.

This was the end of the speech that I, for some reason, thought it would be a good idea to say to a bunch of children, who were increasingly baffled and uneasy:

When he and I are reunited, on the surgeon’s table, when Lemony Snicket and I look into each other’s eyes one final time as separate entities, and our genetic codes again merge, when our CONGRUENT VISCERA once again lock into place, and THRUM WITH ELDRITCH ENERGY—at that moment, something entirely unprecedented will be introduced into the world, that is neither just Lemony Snicket nor myself or any combination but an SUBLIMELY UNHOLY GESTALT or SERAPHIC ARCHWRAITH that may be the end of us all, or our salvation, or some fiery truth, or a planet-eating brain, or a vaporous ogre, or a mountain of disembodied lips shrieking blasphemous incantations, or indeed some nightmare theorem from the back of the world relentlessly and hideously solving itself through the medium of our very flesh, and its conclusion being . . . some rough beast, its hour come round at last.

What the on Earth was wrong with me? Why did I think children would like this? I know that some of them were upset; I am certain that when each group was called, they escaped the auditorium and my speech gratefully.

Anyway, you can read the whole lurid and ill-considered speech here, complete with more weird images.

And here again is my review of his new memoir And Then? And Then? What Next?

(If you’re wondering what happened the second time I met Daniel Handler, it was at the Printers Row Book Festival in 2021. He was having drinks with my friend Betsy Bird and I joined them. That was a much better time.)

The SUPERB and SPECTACULAR 2024 San Antonio 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

May 23, 2024

And that’s a wrap! On May 11, thanks to the pro organizing of Bibliotech and the generous sponsorship of H-E-B Read 3, we did the 90-Second Newbery Film festival in San Antonio, at the swanky Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. They do things big in Texas—we had over 500 attendees at the screening! I liked how the filmmakers got to sit up front at tables, cabaret-style.

There were over 100 movies submitted, so we couldn’t show them all. Instead, Bibliotech created awards like “Best Costumes” or “Best Comedy” and chose two to five nominees, plus a winner, for each category. Most of the screening is spent in giving these awards; the only movies that are shown in their entirety the nominees for “Best Film.” Most of the winners got trophies, and the winners and runners-up for Best Film received big prize checks from H-E-B Read 3 for their school or library!

I had again as my co-host the tremendously talented, funny, and game-for-anything Nikki Loftin (author of If You Get Lost, Nightingale’s Nest, and much more). She can sing! She can dance! And she’s quick with a quip! It’s always a pleasure.

Thanks especially to Laura Cole and Carlos Sauceda of Bibliotech, and Katie Chain and Christa Aldrich of H-E-B Read 3, for making this all possible. (You think I could snag a venue like the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on my own? Not likely.) We also had as one of our opening speakers Thomas Guevara, Chief of Staff of the Bexar County Manager. It was a real honor! Here are Laura and Katie at the top of the show:

And of course, the biggest thanks go to the young filmmakers, and the teachers, librarians, and family members who helped them along the way. So let’s check out the movies themselves!

The first-place winner of Best Film: Middle School or High School (and the winner of Best Visual Effects: Middle School or High School and Best Adaptation: Middle School or High School) was this adaptation of Bill Brittain’s 1984 Newbery Honor Book The Wish Giver by Harris Middle School Broadcast Class SAISD (Filmmakers: Champion B., Brayden E., Luis F., Seth G., Christian H., Kaylynn H., Adrian L., Sebastian M., Halen M., Luis M., Damien O., Aaron O., Christian O., Daniel O., Evelyn R. and Jayden R.):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “Excellent, funny, and inventive . . . I loved the special effect of the floating tortilla monster (shaped in a sinister way) and the panicked shots of all the kids running around in terror, and the kids getting pelted by tortillas!”

The second place winner for Best Film: Middle School or High School (and winner of Best Sound: Middle School or High School and Best Cinematography: Middle School or High School) was this adaptation of Erin Entrada Kelly’s 2018 Newbery Medal winner Hello, Universe by Cosmos Productions from Advanced Learning Academy SAISAD (Filmmakers: Juarez, Emilio, Jarehd, Sebastian, Aliana, Gabriella and Carlos):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “There was engaging, charismatic, and authentic acting throughout, from Kaori’s energetic pushiness to Valencia’s adventurousness to Chet’s gleeful cruelty to Virgil’s passivity . . . Expert cinematography, impressive editing, a great soundtrack, and a tight script all combined to make this an entertaining winner of a movie!”

The third place winner for Best Film: Middle School or High School (and winner of Best Comedy: Middle School or High School) was this adaptation of Kwame Alexander’s 2015 Newbery Medal Winner The Crossover by Keystone School of San Antonio (Team KS7):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “Hilarious . . . From the very beginning I knew it was going to be good, with its snappy introductions of J.B. and Josh, and how ridiculously bad at basketball both of them are. I laughed out loud at the funny montage of airballs and bricks over peppy music . . . I was almost disappointed whenever the basketball actually went in the hoop!”

There was an honorable mention for Best Film: Elementary School for this adaptation of Rebecca Stead’s 2010 Newbery Medal Winner When You Reach Me by Johnson Ranch Elementary of Comal ISD (Filmmakers: Faith, Ava, Conor, Noah, Andrew, Ricardo, Charlie, Collin, Sadie, Halli, Lyla, Wenceslao, Graham, Logan, and Easton):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “All the performances were funny and engaging, especially Miranda, who played it straight (and was therefore that much funnier) . . . The soundtrack music did a good job highlighting the correct emotion for each scene, too. Great work!”

The third place winner for Best Film: Elementary School (and a tied winner of Best Costumes: Elementary School) was this adaptation of Matt de la Pena’s 2016 Newbery Medal Winner Last Stop on Market Street by Cambridge Elementary of Alamo Heights ISD (Filmmakers: Ava, Sara, Caitlyn, and Emerson):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “a cute, entertaining, and accurate retelling of the story! All the performances, especially of Nana and CJ, were charismatic and engaging.”

The second place winner for Best Film: Elementary School (and winner of Best Storytelling: Elementary School) was this adaptation of Erin Entrada Kelly’s 2018 Newbery Medal Winner Hello, Universe by Clear Spring Elementary of Comal ISD (Filmmakers: Scarlett H., Jaselyn T., Kareem G., Eden M., Eden S., Delaney P., Delainee O., Lydia M., Adelaide G., Cayrenis R., Arturo F., Easton M., Mateo L. and Quintin J.):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “What a brilliant idea to tell the story from the point of view of Virgil’s pet guinea pig, Gulliver . . . A tight script, appealing performances, a fun twist, and ingenious special effects all combined with a lot of heart to make a very entertaining and satisfying movie.”

And first place for Best Film: Elementary School (and the winner of Best Cinematography: Elementary School) was this adaptation of Christopher Paul Curtis’s 2000 Newbery Medal Winner Bud, Not Buddy by Colony Meadows Elementary FBISD (Filmmakers: Rocco, Ryan, Marie, and Mrs. A.):

As the judges said in part on the 90-Second Newbery website (full review here), “The performances were all expressive and engaging, and maybe my favorite part was Bud and his grandfather’s comically slow realization that they are related . . . with results in both of them doing simultaneous Home Alone-style looks of surprise with their mouths open and hands on their cheeks. Fast, goofy, and accurate!”

I’ve already overloaded this post with lots of embedded movies, but I heartily recommend you check out these other movies that we honored at the screening:

Best Sound: Elementary School— Last Stop on Market Street by Medio Creek Elementary (Filmmakers: Zamien R., A’nyri J., Troy L., Gabreila Z., Lisa F., Jorge O., Laila B., Matthew L., Nayeli R., Zoey D., Link B., and Lilly B.)

Best Costume: Elementary School— A tie between Joyful Noise: A Tale of Two Voices by Collins Garden Gifted and Talented, SAISD (Filmmakers: Donovan A. & Jeselle S.) and Last Stop on Market Street from Cambridge Elementary, Alamo Heights ISD (Filmmakers: Ava T., Sara C., Caitlyn K., and Emerson O.).

Best Costume: Middle School and High School— Holes by the Advanced Learning Academy, SAISD (Filmmakers: Alek G., Grayson M., Joshua J., Elliot S., Blaise D., and Daniel Y.)

Best Visual Effects: Elementary School— A tie between Doll Bones from Hawthorne Academy Gifted and Talented SAISD (Filmmakers: Lily J., Anna P, Lorelei B, Sofia T., and Jaylyn R.) and Roller Girl from Foster Elementary School Gifted and Talented, SAISD (Filmmakers: Olivia, Evelynn, Malachi, and Ottis)

Best Adaptation: Elementary School— Mr. Popper’s Penguins from the Second Grade Students at Rolling Meadows Elementary, Judson ISD.

Best Animation: Elementary School— A tie between Last Stop on Market Street by Medio Creek Elementary (Filmmakers: Zamien R., A’nyri J., Troy L., Gabreila Z., Lisa F., Jorge O., Laila B., Matthew L., Nayeli R., Zoey D., Link B., and Lilly B.) and Scary Stories for Young Foxes by Colony Meadows Elementary (Filmmaker: Sophia Li)

Best Storytelling: Middle School or High School— Holes by Scobee Middle School SWISD (Filmmakers: Olivia, Charlie, Max, and Cat)

Special Achievement Award For Dual Language— Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Five Palms Gifted and Talented, SAISD (Filmmakers: Aldo H., Nayli L., Esme M., Naomi G., Vanessa A., Alizzae S., Ryver C, Kiana M., and Jacob R.)

Special Achievement, Heart of the Library Award— Freedom Over Me by Madison Elementary Gifted and Talented, SAISD (Filmmakers: Carolina G. and Gabriella N.)

Thank you so much, San Antonio, for another wonderful year of hosting the 90-Second Newbery! I’m already looking forward to next year.

Previous Post