Where Technology Meets Newbery by Eti Berland

It was 7:47am and I needed to do something that terrified me.  I promised myself after finally applying to library school that I would seek out experiences that intimidated me – and look them straight in the eye. So I decided to jump into the unknown, and along with my submission to the 90-Second Newbery Film FestivalMadeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light in the style of This American Life — I volunteered to help. To my surprise, festival creator and curator and acclaimed author James Kennedy accepted my offer. Ever since then, I have helped create comedy segments for the festival, from the Snooki vs. Newbery challenge to the Dark Side of the Newbery trivia game to the Late Night-inspired “If They Mated” gag and also created a promotional video about only reading Newbery-winning books as a parody of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” featuring clips of festival submissions. I played a small part in the legion of book enthusiasts who help to promote the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, and feel honored to have contributed to its success. However, the credit for creating this incredible event belongs to the innovative imaginings of James Kennedy, who dared to dream of a program that would combine creativity, technology, and literacy.

The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival, a program of the Kidlit Foundation, an Illinois literacy nonprofit, is a video contest where filmmakers tell the entire story of a Newbery award-winning book in 90 seconds or less. First started in 2011, the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is now entering its second year, with screenings in New York, Chicago, Sheboygan, Portland, and Tacoma – and more on the way. James Kennedy started this project by sharing his adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, which quickly went viral. As Kennedy points out on his website, “It turns out that any book, no matter how worthy and somber, becomes pleasingly ludicrous when compressed into 90 seconds.”

The Newbery award represents the most distinguished books for children since 1922, and is regarded as the most prestigious award in children’s literature. Compressing these literary greats requires children to critically think about the elements of each story and examine them in a new light. The challenge of adapting an entire book within this limited timeframe has resulted in inventive approaches to storytelling, as well as hilarious deconstructions of beloved tales.  Both beloved and obscure texts are kept fresh by being reinterpreted by a new generation of readers. 90-Second Newbery submissions have included a musical version of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot in the style of Godzilla, Beverly Cleary’s beloved heroine transformed into Robot Quimby: Age 8.235, and my recent favorite, Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Together as a Wes Anderson-style romance. The possibilities are endless for our creative and witty children.

Participating in the 90-Second Newbery enables young people to engage in modern transmedia combined with the traditional literature we love to promote. Children are not passively reading texts; they are creating art, music, fan-fiction, and films based on them. They feel connected to these books by expanding their reading experience across many platforms and sharing them with others. Children are creating art for a real audience, which makes this form of self-expression incredibly meaningful and motivating. For many young people, participating in the 90-Second Newbery facilitates teamwork as they band together to create their video. They become a community of storytellers who each contribute their unique skills and talents to make the story come to life.

During the film screenings, Kennedy curates an individualized show that showcases the films that actual attendees have created and celebrates them publicly for their originality. The experience of seeing their films on the big screen, and having a live audience respond to them, is a moment young filmmakers will remember and treasure. Award-winning authors like Jon Scieszka, Kate DiCamillo, Rita Williams-Garcia, Margi Preus, Brian Floca, Dan Yaccarino, Blue Balliett, Laini Taylor, Kevin Emerson, and Dale Basye have joined Kennedy at various screenings to co-host and add their authorial pizzazz to the proceedings. Between the films, musical numbers, comedic games, and special guests, not to mention James Kennedy’s energetic role as the Master of Ceremonies, the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is a non-stop magical extravaganza.

Anyone can submit a video for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Submissions have come from around the world from home-school groups, camps, library helpers, teen advisory boards, college students, and many others. A free curriculum, created by Debra Ross, provides resources for getting started.  If you feel daunted by new challenges, but also take delight in new possibilities, I urge you to take the plunge to support literacy and make a 90-Second Newbery video. I’ll be waiting eagerly to watch it, and, in the meantime, I’ll be reading Newberys.

Eti Berland is a graduate student at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, specializing in youth services. She has worked as a middle school and high school teacher, teachers’ center facilitator, and curriculum developer. She is the Acting Head Librarian at Hebrew Theological College. She just completed the #Newbery Challenge in time for the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival in Chicago. She blogs at Inthekeyofbooks.blogspot.com and you can follow her on Twitter at @etiberland.