The 90-Second Newbery: An Interview with James Kennedy

“Trade and plum-cake forever, huzza!” So said John Newbery, the 18th-century ...

“Trade and plum-cake forever, huzza!” So said John Newbery, the 18th-century publisher who first established children’s literature as a stand-alone segment of the literary marketplace. His name is attached to the world’s first children’s book prize, a distinguished honor and lucrative sales boost established in 1922 by the American Library Association. For the past six years, his name has also been attached to a more raucous celebration of creativity: the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Created and run by children’s author James Kennedy, this annual make-your-own-video contest invites young readers to condense any Newbery winner down to a 90-second film. Kids then get a chance to see their movies at gala screenings held all over the US, cohosted by Kennedy and local children’s writers.

Public Books section editor Marah Gubar, who studies youth culture, recently attended one of these joyously anarchic screenings. She didn’t win any books during the surprise giveaway that sent audience members scrambling under seats in search of golden tickets. But she did get to see Kennedy and his Boston-based cohost M. T. Anderson—author of Feed, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing …, and other award-winning young adult books—perform a witty musical number penned by Kennedy and focused on the history of the Newbery Medal. And she also got to speak to Kennedy afterward about the pros and cons of handing out prizes, what it means to be creative, intergenerational collaboration, and brains in jars.

Marah Gubar (MG): What originally inspired you to create the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival?


James Kennedy (JK): A while ago, just for fun, my niece and nephew and I made this video of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. We wrote a script together and then we shot it in their house and yard. And then I spent a couple days editing it, and I was surprised at how easy that process was. When I was a kid, my friends and I would run around pretending that we were making movies, but of course we didn’t have any actual video equipment. Now, though, kids can actually make movies, so I thought: wouldn’t it be great to give them that opportunity? I talked to Betsy Bird, a librarian at the New York Public Library, and she helped me publicize the first Festival back in 2011. That year, we had screenings in New York City, Chicago, and Portland. After that, it kind of snowballed. Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter saw the Wrinkle in Time video and was like, “Can I help?” Without her family foundation’s generous support, I wouldn’t be able to do this. We’ve expanded to 12 cities, and I think we might do 14 next year.



MG: That’s fantastic. Why do you think the Festival was so successful, so quickly?


JK: Partly, I think, because we picked the right book as an example. Lots of people—both kids and adults—have a sentimental attachment to A Wrinkle in Time. And the movie we made of it was satirical and fun. It was reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company and the general tendency in contemporary culture for things to move faster and faster and people to digest jokes quicker and quicker. Also, different groups get excited about the Festival for different reasons. Kids find it fun to act stuff out, while teachers and librarians like that it makes for an interesting in-class project. Families like it because it gives them a project to do together.


MG: How great, though, that the initial impetus came not from a stern conviction on your part that “Children need to read Great Books,” but rather from a creative collaboration between you and some kids.


JK: I definitely want this to be a fun thing, not too pedagogical. I always encourage kids, “Don’t just do a straight adaptation of a book; put your own weird twist on it.” Like, do [Beverly Cleary’s] Ramona and Her Father, but do it in the style of a musical, or a James Bond movie, or Star Wars. I definitely don’t want to get a million versions of Lois Lowry’s The Giver every year that are just straight-up summary. What makes an entry worthwhile and distinctive is the kids putting their own stamp on the story. For example, some kids from Illinois did [Richard and Florence Atwater’s] Mr. Popper’s Penguins, but they did it in a style like the zombie apocalypse: at the end, the penguins were taking over New York City, devouring people, and blowing up the Stature of Liberty. And that, I think, is the true spirit of the 90-Second Newbery.


MG: So you basically want kids to think of themselves as active participants in the artistic process rather than reviewers describing someone else’s art.


JK: Exactly. Another favorite entry of mine is the Claymation version of [Hendrik van Loon’s] The Story of Mankind, the very first Newbery winner. What I like about that one is that the filmmakers—Jennings Mergenthal and Max Lau—get big laughs by doing a lot with a little. The animation is not super-polished like a Pixar movie, but it’s so clever how the music and intertitles set up a comic rhythm that carries on through the whole film. That “bwah, bwah, bwah” reminds me of the sound you hear when you level up in Super Mario Brothers. It’s funny! But then you hear it again and again, as one clay figure after another keeps going off to die in the crusades, and it helps you see how dumb and useless war is.

Also, I like how the filmmakers up the ante on the original concept. The Story of Mankind claims to cover all of human history in five hundred pages. So the kids go one better and do it in 90 seconds, which is both impressive and also shows up the absurdity of the whole idea that one very Eurocentric book could cover all of human history.


MG: How does the judging work?


JK: The deadline for submitting entries is in January. Each year, I get about three hundred entries, and I review every one of them on the website I always say three or four nice things about every video regardless of quality. Because what I’ve found is that, even if the first few videos a kid submits are only okay, if they keep at it, they eventually break out and make something amazing. So I want to keep encouraging them every year.


MG: Whoa! That’s a lot of labor on your part.


JK: Yeah. From January to April, it’s basically a full-time job to write all the reviews and set up the screenings, which change from city to city. I show about 20 videos at each screening: a mix of ringers that are so great that I share them all over the country, and films made by local kids that I show in their city so they and their families will come to the screening and get a chance to see their work on the big screen.


MG: So you don’t rank them or select an overall winner?


JK: Right, no ranking. Because suppose a bunch of 18-year-olds get together and make an amazing version of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together. And then let’s say you’ve got a nine-year-old kid who also does Frog and Toad Together, and did the best he could, so is it really fair to have to choose between those? Probably I’d want to show both of them.


MG: I get it. Your policy reminds me of what I always wish I could say whenever I have to hand out undergraduate essay awards: “Everybody has won, and all must have prizes”! Which is what the Dodo says after the caucus race in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I don’t enjoy ranking things that are incommensurable, which is why I feel ambivalent about the Newbery Medal itself: so many great books don’t win.


JK: Yeah, it’s an imperfect instrument. That said, I think that the Newbery committee often rewards good titles, and helps people to discover books they otherwise wouldn’t have known about. For example, lots of people hadn’t heard of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me before it won the Newbery. But after that, everybody found out what a great book it is.

MG: Speaking of great books, I wanted to ask you about your own writing. I was trying to think of how to describe your novel The Order of Odd-Fish to people who haven’t yet read it. It’s quirky and fantastic, like Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events or Andy Stanton’s Mr. Gum books, which are full of meta-jokes and wordplay.


JK: Yeah, I admire how droll and arch Snicket is. Although I model my style on more sprawling and anarchic influences, like Monty Python and Douglas Adams.


MG: That reminds me of another beef that I have with the Newbery: I feel like humor gets undervalued.


JK: You’re absolutely right. The Newbery doesn’t reward comedy. Fantasy and science fiction often get undervalued, too. There are exceptions to that rule, like this year’s winner: Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon. And of course, Wrinkle in Time and When You Reach Me won, too, but notice that they both have a serious and realistic feel to them. Meg is going through typical adolescent problems for the first few chapters of Wrinkle in Time, and only later does the story goes bonkers, with angels and a talking brain in a jar and everything. By the way, I went to see a staged version of Wrinkle in Time recently in Chicago. And they didn’t have a brain in a jar. How can you cut that? Give me a brain in a jar!


MG: Totally. But to return to your work, it seems to me as if your interest in readerly artistry might go all the way back to how you responded when readers of The Order of Odd-Fish started creating tons of fan art. Can you describe that experience?


JK: Not a lot of people have read my book, but the ones who have seem to be the kind of people who like to make fan art. After my book came out, they started sending me drawings of different characters, or posting Odd-Fish-inspired stuff on I really liked how this art expanded the world I created by adding things that weren’t in the book, but maybe should have been there—as if the artists and I were in conversation, creating this world together.

When the paperback came out, I wanted to honor that work. So my friends and I put on an Order of the Odd-Fish fan-art gallery show in Chicago. We took over this warehouse and decorated it to look like a scene from the book by building a “Dome of Doom” out of PVC piping, and we hung up the fan art everywhere and invited a punk rock band to play. Maybe two or three hundred people came, including many of the artists from many states away. People came dressed as monster gods of Eldritch City, the main setting of Odd-Fish. And myself and two friends put on costumes and acted as judges while party attendees fought in the Dome of Doom.

I mean, they didn’t literally fight. They battle-danced, and whoever won each round went onto the next round and the person who won the whole thing we put on an altar and tore out their heart. But it wasn’t a real heart; it was a cow’s heart that was already butchered and everybody clapped.


MG: Sounds kind of like the actual Newbery competition.


JK: Exactly. But in all seriousness, I do think that bringing a scene from my book to life with fans and inviting kids to reenact Newbery winners comes from the same impulse.

MG: Kids creating fan art has a long history. After J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan became a hit play, for example, it inspired child theatergoers to draw pictures of the actors, to construct little crocodiles out of modeling clay, to write and perform their own versions of the play at home, and so on.


JK: Yeah, kids often take things that they’ve seen and make new versions where they mix and match the characters, or they make Han Solo fall in love with Darth Vader, or whatever. And maybe that’s what creativity is for all of us: we mix together ingredients from what we’ve already seen in new ways.


MG: Yes! A contemporary reviewer of Peter Pan actually said that Barrie’s play reminded him of children’s pretend play, because it was a mishmash of pirates and fairies and all different kinds of characters from other people’s stories. Also, your description of creativity reminds me of what Robert Louis Stevenson says in his essay “Child’s Play,” when he compares the creative imagination to a kind of “stage-wardrobe” or “scene-room” that’s emptier when you’re a kid but full of more stuff to mix and match by the time you’re an adult.

Speaking of adults, do you ever get a video and think, “Uh-oh, this seems more like an adult production than something done by kids”?


JK: I think it’s totally fine for adults to be involved. If parents or teachers or whoever want to help some kids make a movie for a film festival, then I think that’s great. Because, again, a kid might start out not knowing how to use iMovie or whatever, but they would love to act in a movie. And then, as the years go by, the kid takes the reins more by saying, “Oh, can I help you edit this scene?”

I mean, I guess there’s a limit to it, in that I don’t want films made only by adults, like two 35-year-old dudes sitting in their apartment pretending to be Frog and Toad.


MG: Don’t you think that we ought to make a separate contest for that, though? Because two 35-year-olds acting out Frog and Toad actually sounds kind of awesome.


JK: Well, that kind of thing might fit on the “Too Hot for the Newbery” section of my website. If Public Books readers are curious about the dog scrotum controversy of 2007, they should check out the film of Susan Patron’s Higher Power of Lucky that’s posted in that section of my website, Also included there is a horror-movie version of E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web that I helped some kids make at the Schaumburg Public Library in Illinois. I stopped showing it at screenings because it was so legitimately terrifying that it gave kids nightmares.


MG: I love the idea that it’s not just okay but great when kids and adults collaborate to create art. Maybe that’s why one of my favorite films that you showed at the Brookline screening was the one based on Elizabeth George Speare’s The Sign of the Beaver. I love how this film doesn’t hide the adult’s role in helping to create the film, it foregrounds it, because the whole film consists of a conversation between Elijah and his dad about The Sign of the Beaver. The dad has no clue what the book’s about, and keeps insisting that there ought to be more beavers in it. Which is hilarious, but also cool, because even though Elijah might not be running the show in terms of determining the content of the film or how it’s edited, he’s definitely the expert on The Sign of the Beaver!



JK: Every time I get a video like that, I’m so glad, because that means I have another ringer that I can show all over the country. And that family submits a terrific movie almost every year. The dad, Aaron Zenz, is actually a great picture-book writer. Kudos to the Zenz family! If anyone who is reading this is inspired by these movies, I encourage you to make your own for next year’s screenings. The deadline is January 12, 2018, and you can find all the cities and dates at icon

Featured image: a still from “Holes” for the 90-Second Newbery. See the complete video here.