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Children's author James Kennedy poses with Newbery-winning books at the Oakland Library's Rockridge Branch on Saturday, where he held the annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. Photo by Katherine Wei.

Children’s author encourages youth to get creative in videos at 90-second film festival

on February 16, 2016

Wearing a shirt with ruffles running down the front and a bright golden bowtie, children’s author James Kennedy bounced up from a chair and briefly introduced a longtime children’s favorite, My Father’s Dragon, before pressing a key on his computer that started a video on the projector screen. Kennedy was hosting his annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival in Oakland on Saturday, showing short clips filmed by children and teenagers based on Newbery Medal-winning books.

Between his wardrobe choices and excited mannerisms, he had the familiar air of Professor Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter film adaptations, only he was not a braggart; he valued every child’s input on their favorite literary works and warmly praised each video he showed.

Children ranging from ages 3 to 13 sat quietly in the auditorium of the Oakland Library’s Rockridge Branch, fishing handfuls of popcorn from miniature striped boxes the library prepared for them and giggling at video after video made by a friend or classmate. A fully animated clay-figure short, a child’s adaptation of My Father’s Dragon, drew gasps of appreciation from adults and children alike. The clay figures were not of the Wallace and Grommit level of exquisiteness, yet they moved smoothly and the dragon even flew off with the main character Homer on its back. From the delighted murmurs, it was clear that the audience thought the piece a winner.

Kennedy has encouraged the young filmmakers to create videos with their own flair, and ludicrousness has been a crucial element in every year’s screenings. “This is much, much more than summarizing the books; I’ve seen kids get really creative and turn in puppet shows and musicals even,” he said. The screening in Oakland showed 20 clips, including a Kungfu version of a Beverly Cleary favorite, Ramona and Her Father, a retelling of My Side of the Mountain that included much space traveling, and Shiloh, starring a bagel as a pet dog.

The film festival is now in its fifth year. Kennedy launched it in 2011, after receiving fan art inspired by his young adult novel, The Order of Odd-Fish. “I had an art show of the fan art [I received] and all the artists came, and I thought, ‘What else can I do? Maybe not just [art] based on my book,’” said Kennedy. “Kids just making art based on something they like and changing them, like putting twists and doing Charlotte’s Web as a horror movie, My Side of the Wormhole instead of My Side of the Mountain.”

The author co-hosted the screening with Oakland resident Liam Dooley, 12, who was later revealed to be the proud director and actor of two entries this year, short videos adapting Hatchet and The Giver. While the original version of Hatchet tells the story of a teenager using the hatchet his mother gifted him to survive in the wilderness after a plane crash, Dooley conjured a magic hatchet that allowed a child forgotten in a local 7-Eleven to open up anything he wished to eat. The young adult novel The Giver takes readers into the future where “sameness” reigns: There is no color, no pain and no memory of the past. People are divided into groups to partake in similar jobs with uniformity, yet wisdom and the human race’s history is passed from the elderly Giver, or keeper of secrets, to the main character, Jonas. Hooley’s video was shot in black and white to depict the sameness of the tale, and a child wearing the big beard of the Giver drew grins from many in the audience. When asked about his rationale behind choosing The Giver, Dooley replied truthfully, “I did it for extra credit in school, and I thought it was easy to make.”

Kennedy, a Chicago-based author, runs a one-man operation, and will be traveling to the 10 cities on his screenings list armed with only his laptop. Out of the 200 entries children send him each year, this year 25 came from the Bay Area. Kennedy accepts film entries every January, and welcomes adaptations of Newbery Honor books as well. The Newbery Medal has been recognized as the most prestigious award in children’s literature ever since 1922. “I announce the contest and I knew some librarians who got the word out, and I change the show from city to city to highlight local work,” said Kennedy.

The film festival started out in Chicago, New York and Portland, and it is being held in seven additional cities this year: San Antonio, Oakland, San Francisco, Tacoma, Minneapolis, Brooklyn, Rochester and Philadelphia. The main 90-Second Newbery film screening on the West Coast is always in San Francisco, with an estimated 300-person audience, held in the city library’s auditorium. “I show 10 ringers in every city and 10 more that are local, because I know people will come to watch films made by their family and friends,” said Kennedy.

At the Oakland showing, a bearded and bespectacled dad who gave his name only as John chuckled at various videos and leaned over to his two preschool-aged children to whisper with them.

“I came with my two babies, and they’re very appreciative of all this. This is their first movie experience ever,” he said.


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