Setting Is Where the Heart (of the Story) Is by Nicole Warchol
If anyone were to ask me my favorite element of a book, my instinctual response would be great characters. Characters who are like me or ones who aren’t like me at all. Characters who I can root for or against. Recently and surprisingly, my reading life is being transformed more by the places on the page.
I don’t think I can be described as an adventurous person or a risk-taker. “I spent my life folded between the pages of books.” This line from Tahereh Mafi’s book Shatter Me is plastered across my cell phone case. Reading is, in most cases, a sedentary activity. I can usually be found curled up on my couch or tucked in my bed with my latest read. But like much of the world, I was captivated by John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars. What was different about this reading experience was that my friends were also captivated. One night at dinner I half-jokingly suggested that we should visit Indianapolis and Amsterdam since many of the locations were real. We could even film live readings of sections of the book and post them on YouTube. Mind you I hadn’t been on a plane in approximately a decade nor did I have a YouTube account. But I tend to have wild ideas. This time they were indulged by my friend and so that is how two Jersey girls ended up exploring these cities in 2013.
We instantly fell in love with Indianapolis. We were welcomed and embraced by the people and overall it felt quite magical. Not only were we exploring a new city but it had the added layer of Green’s story over it. For example, after a downpour we visited Funky Bones and oddly enough there was a young girl there named Esther, which made us think about Esther Earl. Moments like these were powerful because fiction was merging with reality. We spent time in neighborhoods like Mass Ave and Broad Ripple. We visited the zoo and the state museum. While the book locations were a priority, we took this opportunity to discover as much of the city as possible while we were there. In Amsterdam, we tried to make our trip as authentic as possible staying at the Hotel de Filosoof. One of the trip highlights was the Anne Frank House. Walking through the bookcase is as powerful as you’re thinking. If not for John Green’s book, I never would have had any of these experiences. I certainly wouldn’t have ended up drinking champagne at a restaurant with a canal view.
This all added a new element to traveling, which encouraged us to direct our trips with more purpose. What if we continued to travel to the locations of books we loved? What better way could there be to see the world? And so, we became literary pilgrims.
In 2015, we flew out to Nebraska because Rainbow Rowell is a writer that we both admire. We explored Omaha and Lincoln through the lens of her books but we also had time to visit other spots. Unlike the TFIOS pilgrimage, my favorite parts of this trip were non-book locations. I loved the pedestrian bridge where we could straddle state lines. As a teacher, haven’t you always wanted to be in two places at once (if only out of necessity and perhaps a smidge of desperation)? Like our experience on the TFIOS pilgrimage, another bonus of traveling to these cities was the people that we met. Some of the people helped us along our way, gave us recommendations, or invited us to join them to celebrate 4th of July. There is something to be said for grounding writing in real locations. I think it infuses the book with the energy of those places and the people who live there. This is when the setting becomes its own character and has its own pulse.
This July we embarked on a trip to Nashville because Jeff Zentner’s books are both set in Tennessee. Zentner has said that his latest book Goodbye Days is his love letter to Nashville, which persuaded me to go there. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have suggested that we drive more than two hours up to the mountains in unpredictable Tennessee weather to hike at Fall Creek Falls. But I am happy Zentner used it as a location in his book because it was a definite highlight to our trip. I also wouldn’t consider myself a huge country music fan but after this trip I have a new-found appreciation for it. We were able to go to the Grand Ole’ Opry for a show and get the backstage tour, which was amazing. Like our previous trips, we recorded the live readings and posted them on YouTube. A new element to our trips is spreading our love for literature in each city that we visit. Starting with Tennessee, we used Book Crossing and donated both of Zentner’s books to a Little Free Library in Nashville. One of the books has since already made its way to Oregon.
Stories have not only taken me to imaginative places, they have now also taken me to literal places and my life is that much richer for these experiences. Both for what I have seen and the people I have met. I hope that as my students follow my travels, my commitment to literacy is evident and perhaps infectious. I hope they see just how much even one book can change your life.
I know that not everyone will be inclined or even fortunate enough to travel like this. But I hope you find some way to follow the passion from the page out into the world.
Where will reading take you?
Nicole Warchol is a 7th grade language arts teacher in New Jersey. She is an NCTE Lead Ambassador and a teacher consultant for the Kean University Writing Project. She can be found on Twitter @MsNWarchol and on Instagram @nicolewarchol. She also sometimes writes blogs about her literary adventures at http://www.thecraziestbooklady.wordpress.com.