James Kennedy Makes a Book Reading Into Performance Art

With the author’s tributes to his literary pals, a book event becomes a bombastic, surreal fiction of its own.

Photo: Courtesy of James Kennedy

According to Chicago author James Kennedy, Daniel Handler—the beloved author of the Lemony Snicket series of books for kids—was a surgically removed polyp that once sprouted from Kennedy’s body, who became “the most talented tumor in America.” Sound crazy? That’s kind of the point. This Friday, Kennedy will regale the tail to Handler’s fans after his Chicago Humanities Festival talk and Francis W. Parker School.

Handler is the latest scion of children’s literature to fall victim/beneficiary to Kennedy’s brand of idiosyncratic tribute. In 2009, the Order of Odd-Fish author began a one-way feud with Neil Gaiman (Coraline, The Graveyard Book), after the author took home the Newbery Medal. “You always hear about these famed literary rivalries,” says Kennedy, who lives in Lincoln Square. “Like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. That sort of thing doesn’t happen in children’s literature, but maybe it should.”

Kennedy proclaimed that Gaiman was in fact two millimeters tall and that his books were written by bees and that the award belonged to him. Two years later, Kennedy introduced Gaiman at the Rockefeller Chapel in Hyde Park for a “One Book, One Chicago” event, turning out a performance in which Kennedy proclaimed he “invented” Neil Gaiman, who, before his fame, was just a “weird kid in the back of the classroom eating dead bees off the windowsill.” After ten minutes of hilarious esoterica, it culminated with Kennedy singing Katy Perry’s “Firework” to the award-winning author.

Kennedy’s idiosyncratic performances have attracted their own fame through their self-assured bombast and surreal fictional plotlines. He admits, he’s not sure why he started doing them. “It’s only because I love these writers that I bother to do this,” says Kennedy. “If it was for someone I didn’t like, it’d be pointless. I love his work, so I wanted to create this bizarre alternate history that implies I have some intimacy with this famous author who has no idea who I am.”

For Kennedy, the showmanship is part of the culture of young-adult literature, or should be. The organizer of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival says younger audiences tend to be very responsive to his outsized performances.

“The whole reason I do it is because it’s fun, and life is long,” laughs Kennedy. “This life is so long.”

Nov. 1 at Francis W. Parker School, 2233 N. Clark St., chicagohumanities.org; $20, $10 for students and teachers.

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