Winners of Newbery San Antonio Film Festival gather with winnings that will help fund their schools during the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the Witte Museum.
Winners of Newbery San Antonio Film Festival gather with winnings that will help fund their schools. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At the last second, the fourth annual 90-Second Newbery San Antonio Film Festival was nearly canceled by the “High Supreme Newbery Council” of past award-winning authors Kate DiCamillo, Jacqueline Woodson, and E.B. White. The audience of 500 kids, parents, teachers, school administrators, and local dignitaries almost totally freaked out!!!! as they were commanded to clear the auditorium. DiCamillo then ordered that James Kennedy, a noted children’s author who created the 90-Second Newbery project, be summarily executed.

But all was well. The cancellation was actually a skit Kennedy had created as a way of introducing the event, along with Nikki Loftin, a children’s author from Dripping Springs. Kennedy was making a point, that encouraging elementary and high school students to make short films based on books was a way to get them engaged with literature, and to keep the work of authors past and present alive for new generations of kid readers.

Hundreds of students from San Antonio, Bexar County, and other nearby Texas locations participated in the annual filmmaking contest at the Witte Museum, hoping to have their short-form videos selected for the fourth annual screening and possibly to win one of five awards.

Thanks to support from local partner BiblioTech and a major sponsorship from the H-E-B Read 3 literacy program, the prizes are substantial: $1,500 goes to the first-place winner, $750 to second place, $500 to third place, and $250 each to two honorable mentions. The money goes to each student production group’s sponsoring school library.

Cut Paper, Clay, Legos, and Song

At the screening on Saturday afternoon, Kennedy had selected 21 videos for presentation from among 160 entries. Each video summarized one Newbery Medal-winning book, selected from among hundreds of titles spanning 1922 to the present. The Newbery Medal is awarded annually by the American Library Association for “the most distinguished American children’s book” of the year.

Winners represented at the festival included DiCamillo (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux), E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), and the most recent winner, Erin Entrada Kelly (Hello Universe).

The student producers approached the challenge of making videos using multiple, innovative methods, including clay, cut paper, Lego, and digital animation, green screen technology, and live action.

The students came up with a number of clever approaches to condensed storytelling. Hatchet, which tells the tale of a young boy stranded in the Canadian wilderness, featured a breaking-news alert. Rana y Sapa, a Spanish-language interpretation of Frog and Toad Together evoked a silent-movie-style, black and white comedy with intertitles. The students musicalized DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux, with an elaborate basement set for the dungeon location integral to the fantasy-genre story.

Despite Kennedy’s skit positing that authors might be aghast at the reduction of their stories to quick videos, “Authors love this,” Loftin said of the 90-Second Newberys. “Because any way you can get kids to read a book, and then process it, work together as a team to create something new with it, are you kidding? That’s exactly what we want kids to be doing with the writing.”

After the 21st video ended, the award winners were announced by Christa Aldrich, Literacy Program Manager for H-E-B; Laura Cole, director of BiblioTech; Laura Cole, director of the BiblioTech public library system; emcee Robert Rivard, editor and publisher of the Rivard Report; and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who named APAP Productions of Boerne High School’s The Giver the night’s first-place winner.

“We kind of expected to win, because we worked so hard,” said Conner, one of the trio of bowtie-wearing producers of the video accepting the award. A musician, Conner made an original soundtrack to accompany the acting of colleague Shane, who played the title character. Another partner, Miguel, said he plans to study business in college, and Shane said he’d look toward finance, since filmmaking isn’t necessarily the most stable career — but he’d still consider the film industry.

during the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the Witte Museum.
Students from Boerne High School win first-place for The Giver during the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival at the Witte Museum. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Second place went to Lincoln Young Women’s Leadership Academy for a puppet and still photo rendering of Lincoln: A Photobiography by author Russell Freedman. Third-place winners from St. Anthony Catholic School said they applied a “rap battle” approach to DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux. “We thought it would be cool since the two main characters were basically in a battle throughout the book,” said Edrick, who also said he “prayed to God we would win, and it worked!”

The first honorable mention went to students from Utopia Independent School District, with their remake of Hatchet as a breaking news report, and the second honorable mention was awarded to Galileo, the lone maker of Frog and Toad Together from the Advanced Learning Academy of SAISD.

“I thought that was a really good idea, kind of unique. Not a lot of people did it,” Galileo said of his cut paper, stop-motion animation. “So I just went right for it, and I’m here now!” he said, beaming, holding his trophy and surrounded by his family after the event.

Galileo said he plans to make suggestions to his school’s library for favorite book titles to purchase for his fellow students. He said that if he had to choose, he’d pick reading over watching movies. “I like reading a little bit more because if I didn’t read ever, then I wouldn’t have the ideas to make into movies.”

Though most have the support of their teachers and school staff and facilities, along with available technology at BiblioTech locations, that students are motivated to make the videos themselves is important to the goal of the project, Cole said.

“They have to figure out a way to work together to make this come to a successful and mutually agreeable product,” she said. “That’s a skill in itself.”

Cole said she has many goals for the kids, “but I just want to them to have fun and get a reward for their hard work.”

Biggest and Best in the Nation

Kennedy began the 90-Second Newberys in 2011 as a nationwide project, which now tours 14 cities across the United States, including Kennedy’s hometown of Chicago, along with New York; Boston; Boulder, Colorado; Salt Lake City; San Francisco; and other locations.

“San Antonio is by far the biggest and the most robust local support,” Kennedy said, with 160 student film entries, compared with about 40 in most other cities.

That enthusiasm is in large part due to Cole and Aldrich, Kennedy said. Cole learned about the 90-Second Newberys project at a national conference for librarians, then brought it back to BiblioTech South. In its first year, 40 entries were submitted, growing in three subsequent years to represent the most entries of any city in the country.

Now, Kennedy starts the nationwide tour in San Antonio “because it puts me in a good mood for the rest of the tour,” thanks to the outpouring of support. In other cities, he said, he picks 10 of the best locally made videos and pairs them with favorites made elsewhere. But each of the 21 videos shown at the Witte on Saturday was produced in San Antonio or nearby locations.

“I get so many entries and a lot of them are so good that I can have an all-local show, and that’s the dream,” he said, that he’d like to eventually see in all participating cities.

Loftin said seeing so many local dignitaries in attendance, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and school superintendents and principals, makes a difference. “Families notice. I notice,” she said. “I hope that more cities will start doing stuff like this. Honestly I don’t know if there’s anything else like it.”

Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...