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The Order of Oddfish


90-Second Newbery, Chicago Style: A Recap, plus the premiere of Onion John

November 19, 2011

Check out the Time Out Chicago’s write-up of the 90-Second Newbery screening! “A brilliant idea . . . never dull . . . no quaint celebration of kid lit: It was a snotty jab at the whole idea of thinking of kid lit as a cute little innocuous genre, which, it hasn’t been in years.” Yee-haw!

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival screening in Chicago on November 16 was a blast! I was almost afraid lightning wouldn’t strike twice―that the Chicago screening would somehow not be as great as the unforgettable New York City 90-Second Newbery screening. But not to worry! We filled up the 385-seat Pritzker auditorium at the Harold Washington Library downtown. The turnout was helped in large part by Daniel Kraus’ interview with me on Booklist, plus kind mentions we got in the Chicago Reader and Time Out Chicago and Chicago Subtext as well as my appearance on WBEZ’s “Eight Forty-Eight” with the First Lady of Chicago public radio, Alison Cuddy.

How did it go? We got a late start, so one of the school field trips that attended had to leave early. But overall, if I had to sum up the audience spirit it would be this:

After Andrew Medlar of the Chicago Public Library gave his intro, Abraham Levitan of the marvelous is-there-anything-they-can’t-do? band Baby Teeth started up. He launched into his opening song, which amazingly incorporated the titles of ALL TWENTY-FIVE Newbery winners we showed that night:

Stirring and impressive! Bonus points for somehow rhyming “Onion John,” “Blackbird Pond,” AND “Black Cauldron” all together. (Abraham, by the way, also runs a piano teaching company called Piano Power that my daughters will definitely attend when they come of age. Lucy’s favorite Baby Teeth song is “Snake Eyes.”)

I then bounded out with my co-host. Now you might be wondering how I could top my co-host in New York, National Ambassador for Children’s Literature Jon Scieszka. The only possible solution, of course, was Chicago funnyman Seth Dodson, who performed in drag as “Spokesmom, the spokesmodel who is also your mom”―a role he performs regularly at Chicago’s art and design talkshow, The Show N Tell Show (who have an wonderful opening credits sequence worthy of deep study and re-watching).

After Spokesmom and I exchanged some banter, we randomly chose out of a hat three Newbery titles that would be screened. Abraham’s task, as the piano man: to write and perform, by the end of the night, an original song that summed up all three of those movies . . . and what’s more, the song’s genre was to be randomly determined by the spinning of the “genre wheel” (a pretty amazing stunt Abraham accomplishes with verve regularly at the Shame That Tune show at the Hideout).

Unfortunately my video camera ran out before it could record Abraham’s ingenious final song. Curses! But here’s when Spokesmom and I first come out, and when we spin the wheel:

The evening roared on, the videos broken up by hilarious interludes by Hogwash (who did book trailers for “lost Newberys” like Smoky the Cow Horse) the Neo-Futurists (who did three separate bits about The Story of Mankind, Frog and Toad Together, and dead animals in Newbery books) and more. We played many 90-Second Newbery videos, of course―but I won’t re-embed them all here (I’ll be gathering them all in one place soon).

That said, I can’t help but feature again one of the best entries―by Elephant and Worm of Chicago―a full-scale musical adaptation of The Twenty-One Balloons (William Pene du Bois, 1948 Medal Winner):

Afterwards, Elephant and Worm did an “Inside the Actor’s Studio” session with the young girl who starred as the bearded Professor William Waterman Sherman. My favorite part of the interview was when the interviewer asked the girl, “What happened to your beard?” and she answered, “You’re wearing it.” Hey, not every theater company can afford multiple beards!

Along the way, we also did the “Snooki or Newbery?” game show that we did at the New York City screening. Wait, what’s that?

Well, this year, the Today Show inexplicably broke with its fifteen-year tradition of interviewing Newbery and Caldecott winners, instead bumping them in order to do a segment on A Shore Thing, a book written by Snooki of Jersey Shore. This contretemps inspired our game, in which we mixed random quotes from Newbery award winners, and random quotes from Snooki’s book, to see if a random audience member could tell the difference. Astonishingly, it’s quite hard! Here’s proof:

OK, OK, those last three were actually Snooki. I love the roars of outrage from the crowd.

What this evening needed was historical context. Who was this “John Newbery” that the medal is named after, anyway? I called upon Adam Selzer, fellow Brother Delacorte and the author of many young-adult novels, including I Kissed A Zombie and I Liked It, the new Extraordinary, and The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History (he’s planning a whole line of Smart Aleck books, or “subversive study aids” as he calls them). Anyway, here’s Adam Selzer’s very funny and revealing expose of John Newbery, “morally uptight weenie”:

There were many other highlights of the evening. I could go on and on. Unfortunately, the night itself couldn’t go on and on, and we were obliged to cut the program short, which meant that several worthy videos were not shown. Next time, I’ll learn how to plan these programs out better! I got too ambitious!

In the meantime, let me leave you with one of the most popular of the 90-Second Newbery videos I’ve received. It’s by Max Pitchkites and his friends. You might remember Max as the one who created twenty-eight different mixed-media cut-paper illustrations of The Order of Odd-Fish―one for each chapter of my book. Well, Max is not only an artist, but a filmmaker, and he chose 1960 Medal winner Onion John for his 90-Second Newbery.

Onion John is about a twelve-year-old boy, Andy, who befriends an eccentric hermit who eats onions like apples and lives in a stone hut near the edge of town. Andy’s father gets the Rotary Club to build Onion John a new modern home with electricity, a stove, etc. but Onion John, unused to modern appliances, ends up setting the house on fire. The townspeople want to build him a new house, but Onion John is unhappy in such surroundings, and finally he skips town. It’s actually based on a true story.

Max’s original uncut version is here, but here’s the 90-second version, with a few tweaks made by me for the screening:

A triumph. I could watch that “BEST FRIENDS” bit, with the ringing guitar chord, again and again. Well done, Max―thanks for being part of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival!

Thank you to ALL the filmmakers. For this Chicago show, thanks to Seth Dodson, Abraham Levitan, Elephant and Worm, the Neo-Futurists, Hogwash, and Adam Selzer for their contributions to the live show. Thanks to the Book Cellar for selling books at the event. Thanks to Jill Liebhaben for the pictures. And an extra big thanks to Andrew Medlar, Bernadette Nowakowski, and everyone who helped at the Chicago Public Library, especially Leland Mosley who did the lights and sound. It was a romp of an evening!

I’m looking forward to doing it all again next year! Filmmakers, get ready for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival 2012!