JQ Magazine: JQ&A with Author/JET Alum James Kennedy on the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival

"As for how being on JET has influenced my writing—definitely, a lot of the fantastical world in my book 'The Order of Odd-Fish' is inspired by what I saw and experienced in Japan." (Courtesy of James Kennedy)

By Renay Loper (Iwate-ken, 2006-07) for JQ magazine. Renay is a freelance writer and Associate Program Officer at the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership. Visit her blog at Atlas in Her Hand.

James Kennedy (Nara-ken, 2004-06), author of the acclaimed young adult novel The Order of Odd-Fish, will be curating the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the New York Public Library on Nov. 5 and with the Harold Washington Library in Chicago on Nov. 16.

Named after John Newbery (thought to be the founding father of children’s literature), the Newbery Award is considered the highest regarded honor given to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literature, and the American Library Association has awarded it every year since 1922. James took a moment to tell us a little about the festival, curating, and his path as an author.

What is the premise of the festival?

[It is a contest, or challenge of sorts] open to anyone, to make a video that compresses the story of a Newbery Medal (or Honor)-winning book into 90 seconds or less. No book trailers! It has to be the entire story. For it turns out that any book, no matter how worthy and somber, becomes pleasingly ludicrous when compressed into 90 seconds. The goal is comedy.

In a previous JETwit posting, you mentioned three award winners who wrote about Japan and the Japanese that no one has tackled yet. Why do you think that is?

Only because the books aren’t as famous—people are naturally inspired to make movies of books they’ve already read and loved. Everyone has heard of Newbery Medal winners like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, or Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

The three Japan-related books that won Newbery Medals or Honors—Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata, Heart of a Samurai by Margi Preus, and Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg—are just not as well-known, and so it’s less likely someone would be moved to make a video. Their oversight is your opportunity! (To make it more interesting, you could even do it in Japanese and add subtitles!)

If you had to give one word of advice to entrants, what would it be?

Don’t merely recap the book. Transform the story! Either in style or substance. Some great examples of successful 90-Second Newbery entries are this full-scale musical version of The 21 Balloons, or this shadow puppet version of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.

As I mention in the contest rules, it’s fun to switch up the genre style, like doing Charlotte’s Web in the nightmarish style of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Or even cross two Newbery books: how about the rodents of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh fight their counterparts in The Tale of Despereaux? Rat fights make for gripping cinema! Basically, make it funny. The deadline for entries is Oct. 17.

What is your role as curator, and how difficult is it?

I’m organizing the logistics of the whole shebang. The screenings of the film festival in New York on Nov. 5 and Chicago on Nov. 16 will not only be showing movies, but also live acts with a Newbery theme, kind of like a cabaret atmosphere. Getting performers on board and figuring out the program, as well as promoting the film festival so that people will actually come to it, is surprisingly time-consuming. However, I do have some experience with this kind of thing. Last year I organized a gallery show of fan art for my book The Order of Odd-Fish, which was also a costumed dance party, but in that case I had the help of local theater group Collaboraction. This year it’s just me and the library. Hard but fun!

Regarding the screenings, do you need volunteers? What are some of the things they would do?

I wouldn’t say no to volunteers! If anyone is interested, they can e-mail me at kennedyjames [at] gmail [dot] com. Basically, the most pressing thing is finding amusing in-between-film Newbery-themed acts for the New York show. I know lots of people for this in Chicago, but few in New York. I’m sure there is also a lot of logistical last-minute stuff that will have to be taken care of, too. Yeah, I’d be grateful for any help!

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

Writing books and putting on ludicrous events is all I want to do.

You mentioned your love for organizing large, fun events such as this. How did you get involved with Newbery and this project?

When I was a kid, I’d notice certain books had “winner of the Newbery Medal” emblazoned on them but I didn’t really know what that meant, or care. But when I became a children’s/young adult author, I began to care. Intensely.

My first book, The Order of Odd-Fish, was published in 2008, the same year as Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which won the Newbery award for that year. As it happens, I was invited to speak at the American Library Association conference in Chicago the year Neil Gaiman was to receive the award. I was supposed to talk about fantasy novels; I ended up doing something different. I showed up in the conference room soaking wet, missing a tooth, barefoot, in a poofy pirate shirt and unspeakable blazer, and went on to castigate the hundred-or-so librarians there for giving the Newbery Medal to Neil Gaiman and not to me.

Midway through the speech, a friend dressed as Neil Gaiman stood up, holding the Newbery. I tackled him and wrestled the Newbery away. Another friend came in dressed as the head of the ALA, and she put “Neil Gaiman” and me through a series of mental and physical contests to see who really deserved it. I lost every contest, and was thus sacrificed on an altar with a knife “forged in the flames of the burning of the library of Alexandria.” But then “Neil Gaiman” wept over my corpse, announced that I deserved the Newbery after all, and led one hundred librarians in chanting “Give Kennedy the Newbery! Give Kennedy the Newbery!”

(Click here for the transcript of the speech, the lurid video, and shocking pictures of my combat with Neil Gaiman.)

So the great Newbery feud had begun. This feud was finally laid to rest in April 2011, when Neil Gaiman spoke at the Rockefeller Chapel for the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago. A prankster librarian who knew of my Newbery history with Neil Gaiman invited me to open for him. I started with a series of furious accusations, but eventually ended with me serenading him with Katy Perry’s “Firework.” (Watch the video here.)

The great Newbery feud thus solved, I am now able to concentrate on more important things, like 90-second film festivals.

Any words of wisdom for anyone thinking of organizing an event of this magnitude?

You can’t do it on your own. You need friends to help. The only reason this got off the ground was because my friend, children’s literature superblogger (and children’s librarian at the New York Public Library) Betsy Bird agreed to help out. She has a much bigger platform than I do. Once the New York Public Library agreed to host the film festival in their space, I went to the Chicago Public Library and asked if we could do it there, too, and they eventually agreed. And whenever I do an author visit at a school or library, I make sure to mention it.

How has your time on JET inspired you to be involved in the endeavors you are now?

Nara was a very active chapter, with lots of festivals, parties, etc. I felt very lucky to have spent two years there. But I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to put on big events. Being a children’s author just gives me a bigger platform on which to do it. As for how being on JET has influenced my writing—definitely, a lot of the fantastical world in my book The Order of Odd-Fish is inspired by what I saw and experienced in Japan.

Besides writing and curating, what else are you are involved in?

What else am I involved in? Well, now that I have two daughters, everything other than writing and organizing the occasional event has fallen by the wayside. So: Goodbye, Japanese conversation partner! Goodbye, throwing elaborate costume parties! Goodbye, improv classes! Goodbye, being in a band! Goodbye, any leisure time at all! But it’s all worth it. I’ve never been happier.

Visit James online at http://jameskennedy.com.