April 18

Movie Night with the 90-Second Newberys! by Aaron Zenz

Grab some popcorn.


Grab some kids.


I want to introduce you to one of the most joyous celebrations of children’s literature I know.


For 9 years, the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival has inspired readers and young film-makers around the nation.  The challenge issued: for kids to create videos telling the entire story of Newbery Award and Honor books in an intentionally super-short amount of time, guaranteed to elicit entertaining results.


Each year, the founder and host of the festival, James Kennedy (author, “The Order of Odd-Fish”) curates a brand new line-up with the season’s best submissions.  In distant days before the quarantine (remember those?), James then toured the United States for sold-out screenings at libraries and movie theaters.  Kid creators see their films on a big screen with friends, family, classmates, and hundreds of strangers in a live audience, listening to real-time laughter and applause.  Our family has attended screenings multiple times, and it’s an amazing experience for all in attendance!


The THOUSANDS of wonderful submissions received over these 9 years are also fully archived on the festival’s website!  You can search by book title and find creative resources at http://www.90secondnewbery.com


With this post, I hope to inspire three things.  First, spend some time watching amazing films made by kids!  What a great movie night!  Hunt down your favorite tales at 90secondnewbery.com or watch the ones I’ve pulled together below.  Watch together as a family!


Second, dive into some Newbery books!  Read the stories that kids loved so much they made movies about them!  Be reminded of your own childhood favorites and revisit them.  Introduce them to your kids!  Discover unfamiliar titles.  Read together as a family!


And third, make your own movies!  Grab your kids, grab a camera, and celebrate your family’s favorite books through fan-films.  It’s sad that the second half of this year’s 90-Second Newbery national tour had to cancel, but it would be amazing if social distancing resulted in a HUGE crop of creative new films for next season!  Make movies together as a family!


To inspire you, here are the 90-Second Newbery films our family made over the years, followed by some favorites from other kids.  All six kids in our family play along, from our oldest (13 when we started, now age 21) to our youngest (now age 9).  Instead of straightforward re-tellings, the festival encourages kids to put a spin on source materials. For instance, our most recent movie turns an Abraham Lincoln biography into a parody of the Broadway hit “Hamilton.”  We’ve also built a shadow puppet theater, painted a giant wall mural, and re-imagined “Charlotte’s Web” as a 1960’s superhero television show.  The process of making these films together will forever stand as some of my absolute favorite family memories.


“Abrahamilton” as a musical parody (2020)

Over Christmas break we mashed together Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award winning Broadway musical “Hamilton” with Russell Freedman’s 1988 Newbery Award winning book “Lincoln: A Photobiography.” All six kids sing, dance, wear beards and hats, and have a whole lot of fun.




“Frog and Toad Together” with puppets (2012)

We used stuffed animals as puppets to tell the “Dragons and Giants” chapter from Arnold Lobel’s 1973 Newbery Honor book “Frog and Toad Together.” Our oldest son (14 at the time) designed all the mechanics, indoor sets, and music, while all the kids performed puppets and voices.




“The Sign of the Beaver” as an illustrated conversation (2017)

For a book called “The Sign of the Beaver,” there are not many beavers.  10-year-old Elijah tries explaining that to Dad, with some humorous results.  We recorded this unscripted conversation about Elizabeth George Speare’s 1984 Newbery Honor book, and later Elijah drew his own illustrations to accompany.




“Charlotte’s Web” as a 1960’s television superhero show (2014)

We took the 1953 Newbery Honor book “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White and mashed it with the Spider-Man theme song to create opening credits for a mock 1960’s superhero television show. The kids designed their own costumes and choreographed their own fights and moves.




“Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” with shadow puppets (2011)

Our first film paid tribute to Grace Lin’s 2010 Newbery Honor book “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” and used shadow puppets to reflect its black and white chapter headers.  The kids wrote the whole script and designed all the characters.  13-year old Isaac took their designs and built all the puppets, and the whole family performed them.




“The Black Cauldron” as an illustrated summary (2011)

Our family was reading Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles for our bedtime storytimes.  Without telling her why, I asked Lily (age 8) to tell me about “The Black Cauldron,” which had received a 1966 Newbery Honor.  The recording you hear is her honest-to-goodness response.  Lily later drew illustrations to accompany the recording.




“William Blake’s Inn” as a doodled wall mural (2018)

My two youngest kids wanted to make a film about Nancy Willard’s 1982 Newbery Award winner “A Visit to William Blake’s Inn.”  We threw around many ideas of how to tell the story.  Then out of the blue, they asked if they could paint a mural on my studio wall.  After a long pause, I figured, why not?  I think they’ll remember the experience forever.




Behind-the-Scenes of our “Frog and Toad Together” Fan Film (2012)

Here’s a behind the scenes look at the making of our “Frog and Toad Together” fan film…




And here are some of the very best films made by other talented kids for the festival over the past decade:


“A Wrinkle In Time” by James Kennedy (2011)

The very first example that kicked off the festival:




“The Giver” by Leo Lion (2012)

As a one-man show:




“Frog and Toad Together” by Sara Lovering (2013)

As a story of young love:




“The Apple and the Arrow” by Anya Schooler (2017)

As claymation:




“Annie and the Old One” by CinemaCo (2020)

As stop-motion animation:




Discover more at www.90secondnewbery.com


Aaron Zenz is Dad to 6 creative kids and is Author and/or Illustrator of 39 children’s books including The Hiccupotamus.