90-Second Newbery: A Different Kind of Film Festival

A light rain slicks the gray Chicago sidewalks on the afternoon of Sunday, January 31 as nearly 300 kids, teens, and accompanying adults line up on the steps of the Vittum Theater at 1012 N. Noble Street. Cameras flash and the well-dressed crowd thrums in anticipation of the awards show. Once inside, the audience grows restless as the clock ticks past the official start time, then hushes as the lights dim and hosts James Kennedy and Keir Graff take the stage.

No, this isn’t the Oscars, but to the young writers, actors, directors, editors seated in the theater it is something even more magical. We’re gathered here to watch the short films that they had created. 28 films have been selected by Kennedy out of hundreds of entries for his Fifth Annual 90-Second Newbery Festival.

What is a 90-Second Newbery? The Newbery is a medal awarded each year to, “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” A 90-Second Newbery, as conceived by Kennedy, is a short film made by children and teens that tells the entire story of a Newbery Medal book within the space of 90-seconds (or thereabouts). You can visit Kennedy’s blog (and search youtube, of course) to watch many examples of 90-Second Newberys. Most actually run longer than 90 seconds; let me tell you from experience, condensing an entire book into a minute-and-a-half is hard.

I attended this year’s Chicago screening with several young cast and crew of one of the short films, Princess Academy, based on the Newbery honor book by Shannon Hale. Our adaptation of Princess Academy was filmed and edited exclusively in and around the library, with equipment from the Creative Studio. To give you an idea of the amount of work that goes into making a short film: the process began in mid-September and ended in early January. I originally scheduled 6 meetings of 2 hours each for the teens and me to work on it. We ended up adding 2 additional meetings of 2 hours each, and then needed about 8 hours beyond that to finish the editing.

There was a lot of laughter behind the scenes and on the set, and I think we all learned a few things along the way. I knew, for instance, that we could use Apple’s iMovie software to replace our green screen background with scenery to fit the story, but I had never done it. We figured it out with a combination of trial and error, iMovie’s help section, and a youtube tutorial.

90SN1The theater is very warm, and it’s after 4:30, close to the end of the screening, when Kennedy calls out “Niles Public Library!” We respond with a cheer, and walk up on the stage together. No, we don’t receive a trophy, but the teens – who devoted many h
ours to our film when they could have been doing homework, hanging out with friends, or catching up on sleep – get the opportunity to talk about their film and the book it’s based on, and receive recognition from an audience of their peers.

No gold statues are handed out that day; the rewards are in the experience. As we leave the theater, still buzzing with excitement, there is talk of next year.

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