It is not hard to know what American publisher, bookseller and editor Frederic Melcher had in mind when he proposed the creation of an annual award for the year's best children's book: "To encourage original creative work in the field of books for children. To emphasize to the public that contributions to the literature for children deserve similar recognition to poetry, plays, or novels. To give those librarians, who make it their life work to serve children's reading interests, an opportunity to encourage good writing in this field."
His proposal was approved by the American Library Association's Executive Board in 1922. The first prize, a bronze medallion designed by Rene Paul Chambellan and called the Newbery Medal, after 18th-century English bookseller John Newbery, was awarded by the association's Children's Librarians' Section to "The Story of Mankind" by Hendrik Willem van Loon, a now mostly forgotten Dutch-American historian, journalist and illustrator.
The Newbery Medal was the first children's book award in the world and has had a wonderful and admirable run, giving birth in 1937 to the Randolph Caldecott Medal (he was a 19th-century English illustrator), which has recognized each year's "most distinguished American picture book for children." These prestigious prizes are Melcher's great legacy.
He died in 1963, so it is impossible to know what he might have made of the conversation taking place last week in a neighborhood tavern between two bright and energetic Chicago authors named James Kennedy and Keir Graff.
It was Kennedy who created the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival in 2012, a gathering of short films based on Newbery winners (and finalists), and Graff is set to be his co-host for this year's bash. Now there might be some who would consider this sort of thing blasphemy, an act subversive or lacking respect. But Kennedy will tell you that he is quite serious. As he explains to me, the festival is meant "to entice students into reading and discussing Newbery-award-winning books, especially some of the older, unjustly forgotten titles; encourage close, intelligent reading necessary to write a script that wittily sums up an entire book in 90 seconds; and offer the opportunity for students to use new technologies, such as video equipment and video editing software, in a constructive way that promotes literacy."
This year's Chicago festival takes place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Vittum Theater, a 299-seat house at 1012 N. Noble St. There is no admission charge; tickets can found by going through jameskennedy.com/events. Future screenings will be held at libraries and schools in Oakland, Calif.; San Francisco; Tacoma, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; and New York City, the latter in a venue that seats 600.
Entries flow in all year, and this year there were more than ever, some 250 short films.
"The work can be uneven," Kennedy says. "And it is obvious that some adults are helping out on some films. But some have been so good we've let them go on for more than 90 seconds. I am ever surprised by the quantity."
He should be. A sampling of what's available for viewing at jameskennedy.com offers some delightful and entertaining films. Is there a future Scorsese or Spielberg in the bunch of pint-size filmmakers? Who knows, but the best of the films display great imagination, palpable playfulness and creative sparks. And remember, director John Huston (and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury) turned Herman Melville's massive 1851 novel "Moby-Dick" into a 116-minute movie in 1956.
"To shoot, edit, do sound design, engineer special effects and wrap up a video project is an eye-opening experience for budding directors," Kennedy says. "Seeing one's work featured on the 90-Second Newbery website and screened at an official film festival gives participants a sense of recognition and membership in the larger literature community."
The festivals are a program of the KidLit Foundation, an Illinois nonprofit, and are funded in part by donations from some private individuals. Graff and Kennedy are active members of the local literary community and have been friends for some time.
Kennedy is the author of "The Order of Odd Fish," an engaging 2008 fantasy novel for children. He frequently speaks and teaches at schools and libraries and has just finished his latest book, "Bride of the Tornado." He is also something of a born entertainer. He recently performed an "I am Rick Kogan" monologue as part of The Paper Machete, Christopher Piatt's weekly "live magazine show" at the Green Mill. Kennedy neither looks nor sounds much like me, but you can have a listen at jameskennedy.com/2013/12/29/i-am-rick-kogan.
Graff, whose adult novels include the fine "The Price of Liberty" and "My Fellow Americans," published his first children's book, "The Other Felix," in 2011 and has worked for years as a book reviewer and critic for Booklist Online, a publication of the American Library Association.
Both writers live in Chicago and have kids: Graff's are 9-year-old Felix and 7-year-old Cosmo; Kennedy's are Lucy, 4, and Ingrid, 2.
"Cosmo has started asking me, 'Why haven't I gotten to make a movie yet?'" says Graff, smiling. "One day maybe he will get to make a movie, but now I'm excited to be a part of this. Do we sing, tell jokes between films? Whatever, I'm ready."
Blue Balliett has been there. She is the best-selling and prize-winning (though no Newbery Medal yet) author of such books as "Chasing Vermeer," "The Wright 3," "The Calder Game," "The Danger Box" and, most recently, "Hold Fast."
She was Kennedy's co-host for last year's festival, which took place at the Harold Washington Library. "He had asked me the first year, and I said 'no,' because I thought I was too shy," Balliett said. "But last year I was there, and we sang a song together. It was great. And the films … so fun, so cool and so charming."
That's the general consensus. At the festival's other locations, Kennedy's co-hosts and guests include such respected Newbery winners as Kate DiCamillo, Jenni Holm and Katherine Applegate. But one wonders what the long-gone first winner, van Loon, might make of all this?
He would surely be amazed to watch the film inspired by his 1922 "The Story of Mankind." It was made by Jennings Mergenthal and Max Lau, 15-year-olds from Tacoma. No Jennifer Lawrence. No Tom Hanks. But click here to watch it and let me know what you think.
"After Hours with Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun