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The Order of Oddfish


90-Second Newbery 2017: CHICAGO

April 3, 2017

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival relies on your donations! Want to support what we’re doing? Please donate the 90-Second Newbery here! We are a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.

On Saturday, April 1, my co-host Keir Graff and I brought the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival back home to Chicago, at the Vittum Theatre. Above are (most of) the local young filmmakers who contributed to the show. It was a great crowd, an exhilarating afternoon.

Especially because my daughter Lucy made her stage debut! Check out the video of the opening skit below, in which Keir and I learn what most Newbery-winning books have in common: the mawkish/gruesome inclusion of a dead animal. We discover a device that produces guaranteed-Newbery-winning manuscripts, but at the price that an actual animal must die. Lucy plays the volunteer from the audience whose pet bunny “Fluffles” is the victim of our scheme. Then Keir and I launch into the opening number from “Hamilton” with a 90-Second Newbery twist:

Great job, Lucy! Just for reference, here’s what Lucy looked like almost eight years ago. She’s grown!

So, let’s get to this year’s local movies. This year saw the triumphant return of Fuzzy Pizza Productions to the 90-Second Newbery, adapting Elizabeth George Speare’s 1984 Honor Book Sign of the Beaver:

As the judges said in the full review on the 90-Second Newbery website, “One of the best 90-Second Newberys ever . . . I love the way the father willfully misinterprets all the plot points so that they have to be about beavers . . . Great art and animation all throughout!” You owe it to yourself to check out all the 90-Second Newberys over the years by the multitalented Zenz family. (They had a great children’s books blog going for a while, and the father Aaron Zenz is an amazing picture book author too.)

Next up: Gary Paulsen’s 1988 Honor Book Hatchet by Charlie of Edgewood Middle School in Highland Park, IL. Here, this gritty tale of how a boy must survive alone in the wilderness after a plane crash, with only a hatchet for help, is given a modern twist: it’s Hatchet in virtual reality!

As the judges said, “Hilarious. I love the visuals of Charlie bumping around in his house with the virtual-reality headset on. Each scene expertly builds the comedy . . . Big laughs, loved it!”

That’s not the only version of Hatchet we received this year. Here’s the same story, but adapted with a horror-movie twist, by the Youth Media Program at Chicago Filmmakers Moviemaking Camp:

According to the judges, it was “a stroke of brilliance to adapt it in the style of a horror movie! What’s more horrifying than being trapped alone in the wilderness? And I like how the premise extends to everything: the ominous black-and-white effect used throughout, the terrifying mother (and the foreboding repetition of “future danger”), and the scary music inside the plane . . . and that ending credits sequence was super impressive!”

(Chicago Filmmakers Moviemaking Camp also did an adaptation of Lois Lowry’s 1990 Newbery Medal Winner Number the Stars, which you can see here.)

Last year Corbin Stanchfield of Indiana turned in an all-time 90-Second Newbery classic with his adaptation of Shiloh with the dog replaced with a bagel. This year he’s back with an adaptation of Gennifer Choldenko’s 2005 Honor Book Al Capone Does My Shirts:

The judges loved this one too: “Hilarious idea to do the book in the form of a cheesy 1980s-style commercial! . . . the bloviating low-rent huckster version of Al Capone in this video is a fantastic comic creation.”

How about last year’s Newbery Medal winner, Matt de la Pena’s 2016 Medal Winner Last Stop on Market Street? We’ve got a great musical version of it, by Spencer of Highland Park, IL:

The judges were also enthusiastic about this one: “Amazing! A new approach to the 90-Second Newbery, fun and well-executed! I like the way that you played all the parts of the song yourself, with voice and manual percussion on loop, and then sped up the whole thing. The lyrics summed up the story elegantly and they fit perfectly into the song . . . So much fun, joyful and goofy and well-crafted!”

Here’s another movie by a 90-Second Newbery veteran from Chicago, Ada Grey. Every year Ada makes elaborate Playmobil mise-en-scenes that tell the stories of the books, with her narrating the story in voiceover. This year she adapted Amy Timblerlake’s 2014 Honor Book One Came Home:

The judges praised this one as “Ambitious and technically innovative . . . The sets were beautiful and elaborate, especially the nighttime ones with the glowing stars and the artfully deployed lightning and shadows . . . Great movie!”

You can see Ada Grey’s other 90-Second Newbery movies here, and check out her progress in the Chicago theater scene (with reviews of various shows, and her own budding acting career!) at

Next up is the “Cookies” vignette from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Honor Book Frog and Toad Together, as adapted by by Steve, Meg, Lucie, and John:

The judges gave high marks to this one too: “A standout entry, beautifully well done! The banjo music in the background throughout set a rambling-but-peppy mood. Excellent visual storytelling, the movie really gets across the events of the narrative in a compelling way without a single word . . . It was also a cool moment when the bird flew away with the cookies, and eventually perched at the top of the Sears Tower!”

Frog and Toad Together was also adapted by Newbery veteran Ava Levine (check out her earlier entries here). Her twist? Do do them in the style of Seinfeld! Here are the vignettes “The List” and “The Garden” from the book:

The judges’ remarks for “The List” and “The Garden” praise the use of “traditional Seinfeld bass-slap music and laugh tracks and sitcom-style credits . . . the script follows the plot of the story accurately while still giving it ridiculous sitcom twists . . . Funny, creative, well done!”

Next up is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 1941 Honor Book The Long Winter as adapted by Hazel, Violet, Nora, and Devin. Last year the same group adapted On the Banks of Plum Creek . . . I hope they eventually make movies of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books!)

So quoth the judges: “A superior adaptation of the book! I liked the repeated use of footage of an actual blizzard . . . That was a fun scene when all the girls all broke down crying, and then whooped with joy when Pa came back, and then all screamed in horror again when they saw there was no candy left for them. Really great acting throughout!”

Cynthia Kadohata’s 2005 Medal Winner Kira-Kira was adapted by Kathrine, Valentina, Liza, and Aaron of the Niles Public Library:

As the judges said, “Beautiful and ingenious! . . . The stop motion throughout is elaborate and clever . . . I particularly loved the part that illustrated the story where the fish were driving and the horse was flying! Technically assured and heartfelt, a real treat.”

Only a few more movies left! Next up is Holly Black’s 2014 Honor Book Doll Bones, as adapted by the Evanston Public Library Homeschool Group:

As the judges said, “Committed and hilarious acting, a tight script, an overall fun romp through the book! It was a classic comedic bit when the father gives the son his Blackhawks jersey… only to reveal another Blackhawks jersey underneath . . . I liked the attention detail throughout: the gravestone at the end, the action figure fight at the beginning, and the breaking of the fourth wall right before the flashback. Well done!”

Two more to go! The kids at Francis Xavier Warde School in Chicago did this horror-themed adaptation of Lowry’s 1994 Medal Winner The Giver:

The judges said, “The scary sound effects and music really make the movie! I love the monochromatic background and the Giver’s weird bald wig . . . It was an inspired touch to have the Giver engaging in a sword fight with pursuers as Jonas escapes the community. Fun climactic chase scene near the end!”

And last but not least of the local entries I’d like to feature today, we have Katherine Applegate’s 2013 Medal Winner The One and Only Ivan, adapted by Kevin and Richard of Highland Park:

The judges said, “Excellent stop motion claymation! I was impressed all the way through, indeed from the very beginning, with Ivan the gorilla eating the banana–so accurate and well-structured! . . . The intertitles moved the plot along very effectively . . . enjoyable all the way through!”

Phew! That’s a lot of movies.

I’d like to thank everyone who helped out with the Chicago show. Thanks of course to my wonderful co-host Keir Graff (go buy his new children’s book The Matchstick Castle). Keir co-writes the opening skit with me every year. This year he joined me not only for the Chicago screening, but for screenings across the country. It was great fun!

Also thanks to the folks at the Vittum Theater and Northwestern Settlement, especially Laura Kollar and Maya who helped out the day of the screening, and Tom Arvetis and Mary Kate Barley-Jenkins who take care of the administrative end.

Thanks to my friend Kate Babka for running the lights during the show, to Oak Park’s bookstore The Book Table for selling books after the show, and to Scott Dummler and my wife Heather for filming the opening skit. (Speaking of the opening skit, special thanks to Lucy for her great work in that!)

And thanks to Eti Berland for all her great work coordinating the social media for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival on Facebook and Twitter!

And last but not least, thanks to all the young filmmakers, and their friends and family and teachers and facilitators who helped out. Obviously, there would be no film festival without you. Year after year I get great movies from all around the country, and the entries from Chicago and environs are always up there with the best (here’s looking at you, Michigan and Indiana!)

Itching to make a movie, after seeing all those great ones? The deadline for next year is January 2018. I can’t wait to see what you dream up next time. Complete details about the film festival at

Until then, here’s the closing montage of the Chicago 2017 90-Second Newbery show:

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival relies on your donations! Want to support what we’re doing? Please donate the 90-Second Newbery here! We are a sponsored project of Fractured Atlas, a non-profit arts service organization.