OAKLAND -- Imagine if Newbery award-winning bestsellers like "Island of the Blue Dolphins" or "Mr. Popper's Penguins" or "The Tale of Despereaux" could be told in 90-second films featuring mostly children?
At the third annual -- but first ever in the Bay Area -- "90-Second Newbery Film Festival" at the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Public Library beginning at 12 p.m. Saturday, imagination will run rampant as festival director James Kennedy co-hosts a screening with three-time Newbery honor winner, author Jennifer Holm.
The Newbery awards, consisting of one medal-winning book and two to five honor books, have been given by the American Library Association since 1922. Selected by librarians, recognition as "most distinguished American children's book" in any given year can cause the top winner to jump like a grasshopper into reader's hands and soar onto bestseller lists -- or into the wild world of cinema, with Kennedy's rollicking, curated-according-to-content festival.
A published author ("The Order of Odd-Fish"), Kennedy selects from each year's nearly 100 entries those films meeting criteria he calls casual. But his agenda seems far from whimsical and rather resembles an English teacher/filmmaker mashup: does the movie tell the story coherently? Does it tell the story with style? Can you understand the movie even if you haven't read the book? Is it actually entertaining?
In Rockridge, a "best-of-the-best" compilation will be shown, with Kennedy and co-host Holm (author of "Our Only May Amelia" and several book series for young readers) inserting comedic banter and possible pop quizzes between films.
"Last year, we did an audience-participatory quiz about various Newbery-winning authors who had served time in prison or had unsavory pasts," he writes, responding to questions in an email. "You'd think that most children's authors are harmless folks, but it turns out that some, in their misspent youths, have been convicted of drug-trafficking, cattle-rustling, gunrunning and all kinds of surprising secrets."
What is not so mysterious, is the charm and delightful energy that has caused the festival to expand each year. Close, intelligent readings -- and re-readings, Kennedy emphasizes -- whittle a story into 90-second explosions of creativity.
Legos, hand-rendered drawings, clay-model, papier-mâché, or stop-action animations and often, live casts populated by child actors and recruited friends and family members, require a certain impresario finesse. Adapting a story turns out to be challenging. Kennedy says entrants' submissions are becoming more sophisticated every year. Young people's skill with technological tools is pumped up, but so, too, are their adventurous imaginations.
Kennedy says he has found it easier to get media attention as the festival gains momentum. The first year's screenings in Chicago, New York, and Portland, Ore., have this year stretched to Tacoma, Wash.; Oakland and San Francisco. A screening at the San Francisco Public Library, at 4 p.m. Saturday, will feature the best movies of 2013, including three Bay Area entrants: Isabella Acosta, Foster City; Bennett True, San Mateo; and four students at St. Andrews School in Saratoga.
"I'm surprised and delighted and thankful that the film festival has come this far," Kennedy says.
To get in the mood -- and see how cool it is to share two Tacoma teens' take on the very first Newbery Medal winner, "The Story of Mankind" by Hendrik Willem van Loon -- view Jennings Mergenthal's and Max Lau's clay animation at http://vimeo.com/59459453.
For information about entering next year's competition, visit http://jameskennedy.com/90-second-newbery/