The Midwest gets its close-up

For 10 years, I lived in a punch line.

"So, how are things going in Toledo?" my New York-based friends and relatives would chuckle, as if they expected to hear about how I drove to work on a tractor, chugging high-fructose corn syrup and picking hay from my hair. "How are things going in Toledo?" they would ask, as if I'd somehow fallen off the edge of the earth, and it was their job to remind me that if I wanted to live a worthwhile and interesting life, I'd better haul myself back to New York — or at least New Jersey — as soon as humanly possible.

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I laughed, even as I grew to appreciate a place that offered me things a big coastal city couldn't: a 15-minute commute, a spacious apartment, an ample travel budget. And I laughed because there's no denying it: Toledo is kind of funny, even to Toledoans.

I moved to Chicago and put my longing for geographical validation behind me, only to have it hit me again, full-force, when I recently read the passage in the young adult blockbuster "The Fault in Our Stars," in which the young heroine pays homage to a quiet neighborhood park in Indianapolis:

I was just trying to notice everything: the light on the ruined Ruins (monument), this little kid who could barely walk discovering a stick at the corner of the playground, my indefatigable mother zigzagging mustard across her turkey sandwich, my dad patting his handheld in his pocket and resisting the urge to check it, a guy throwing a Frisbee that his dog kept running under and catching and returning to him.

Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is (anyone) to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary? All I know of heaven and all I know of death is in this park: an elegant universe in ceaseless motion, teeming with ruined ruins and screaming children.

Galvanized by my emotional response to that passage (Dear Reader, I cried), I tracked down authors, experts and young adult readers, and asked them, essentially, is it just me sobbing over an obscure local landmark? Or do the increasing number of Midwestern settings in Y.A. literature really matter in the lives of young readers?

A lot has changed since the 1970s and '80s, when I was growing up in suburban New Jersey. My vague impression that I just might be living near the center of the known universe was reinforced by a Y.A. landscape heavy on New York settings (Judy Blume's "Forever," Paul Zindel's "The Pigman," J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye") with a smattering of New England locales (Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time," Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women").

Today we have the dystopian best-seller "Divergent" — both the 2011 novel by Veronica Roth and the movie starring Shailene Woodley — set in a crumbling but lovingly depicted and thoroughly recognizable Chicago.

John Green's "The Fault in Our Stars" — also soon to be a movie starring Woodley — glories in the nooks and crannies of Indianapolis. And the critically acclaimed novel "Eleanor & Park" by Rainbow Rowell also reportedly heading for the big screen, transports Romeo and Juliet to suburban Omaha, Neb., circa 1986.

"Before the Internet, it was probably easier to be an author if you lived in New York city," says Rowell, who lives in Omaha.

"There was some sort of feeling for all artists that you needed to be closer to the hub. I don't think that's as true anymore. Definitely I feel like I can do what I do better from the Midwest than I could have 20 years ago or 15 years ago. You can have really intimate conversations with people, you can be part of your editor's life and vice versa — you can do that from anywhere now."

The books that authors such as Rowell are writing are often distinctly Midwestern, and not just in the sense of cornfields, silos and wide open spaces. The young hero of "Eleanor & Park" values family ties in a way you don't often see in Y.A. literature, and "Divergent" casts a harsh light on what is, essentially, an intellectual elite (think "Harry Potter's" Hermione all grown up — and evil). The contrast between small-city purity and big-city decadence in "The Fault in Our Stars" calls to mind the St. Paul versus New York dichotomy in "The Great Gatsby."

Andrew Smith, author of the popular Y.A. novel "Grasshopper Jungle," lives in the Los Angeles area but set his book in Iowa, where he has relatives by marriage.

"I don't think the book could take place in California," Smith says. "There's a lot about the book that deals with innocence and purity and the pollution of things — the genetically modified factors polluting this innocent environment and these innocent kids. It kind of had to take place in the Midwest."

Great storytelling can transcend setting. Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, notes that she very much identified with "Harriet the Spy" as a girl, despite the fact that she had never been to New York City. When Horning grew up and finally saw Harriet's neighborhood, it was "more like going home than when I got back to the neighborhood I grew up in."

But for some teenagers in some cases, setting means a lot. Stevi Cook, a sophomore at Western Kentucky University who grew up in Indianapolis, recalls preordering "The Fault in Our Stars" as a high school senior and then waiting eagerly for it to arrive.

"I can read the book and I can see the places where (the heroine) is going," she says. "The book is one of my favorite books, and I'm sure that's why. (The heroine) is more of a real person because I've visited the Castleton mall and I've gone to the (Indianapolis Museum of Art). To me, it does make it more real that it's in the Midwest."

Cook's friend Abby Carlson, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, says the book colored her view of her hometown.

"They kind of romanticized aspects of the scenery; it was different than I'd ever imagined Indianapolis," she says. "The places I'd never been to, like the outdoor parts of the Museum of Art, were amazing. The fact that I'd never been there was crazy, and I really enjoyed going there. It made me appreciate the city a lot more."

Smith, whose warts-and-all portrait of small town Ealing, Iowa, might be described as affectionate but brutal, says he actually gets a lot of email from Iowa readers, and it's not the hate mail he had originally anticipated.

"They all have something else to say about their connection, their life around the Waterloo area, and how much they feel like the book represents something about their lives," he says. "So I think that (setting) is really important for young readers, and also for people who are just emergent readers, people who are beginning to read even as adults."

Rowell, who set three books in Omaha, reports a similar phenomenon. The crew of "Up in the Air" filmed an Omaha scene that never made it into the movie, she says, but Omaha Facebookers were thrilled when the scene was included in the DVD outtakes. "You've got to watch the 'Up in the Air' outtakes if you want to see George Clooney walk through our airport!" they told their friends.

"We feel so invisible in larger culture — because we are," Rowell says with a laugh. "I don't say that in a pained way. I don't feel like that's my cross to bear. But we are — we don't feel like we count. And when I wrote 'Attachments,' I felt, OK, I'm going to set this in Omaha. I don't think I ever say Omaha in that book, but it's very clear to anyone who lives here that it's Omaha.

"And I thought, it doesn't matter to anybody else — no one is going to care where this book is set except for the people in Omaha, and they're going to get such a kick out of it. It was like I was hiding Easter eggs for fellow Nebraskans."

Nara Schoenberg is a Tribune lifestyles reporter.


Books set in the Midwest

Divergent by Veronica Roth (2011)

A teen warrior in a futuristic Chicago divided into five rigid, character-based factions learns that she has exceptional talents that may make her the target of a power-hungry faction leader. Keep an eye out for the John Hancock Center and the Ferris wheel at Navy Pier.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013)

Sixteen-year-old Eleanor is awkward and unhappy as the new girl in a hardscrabble Omaha suburb, where her flaming hair, scary stepfather and peculiar fashion sense work against her. Park, the boy who seems to have everything, avoids her at first, but then, almost by accident, they start reading comics together on the school bus.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (2012)

Hazel and Augustus meet in a cancer support group in an Indianapolis church, and they embark on a wry, funny, heartbreaking romance played out before an array of real-life local landmarks. Check out the YouTube video "The Fault in Our Stars — Indianapolis Tour."

Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith (2014)

Our hero has a great deal to say about his hometown of Ealing, Iowa, virtually none of it positive. Still, it's clear by the time the giant mutant grasshoppers descend that he has real affection for this unassuming place.

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