The City of Ember and The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

It’s not easy to write a middle grade/YA novel that has elements of allegory and cautionary tale without it ending up sounding preachy. Somehow, Jeanne DuPrau has done it. Twice.

Of course, it helps that both books are also good, fun, post-apocalyptic sci-fi. I’m not saying that the books’ message is entirely invisible, or even subtle; but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the books, nor did I find it overpowering (though I suspect that might be a matter of taste). It also helps that I agree with her messages: be careful with this life, this world—it’s the only one we’ve got. Be patient and loving with your fellow humans. Don’t let anger, violence, and hate control you, because you might lose your life, world, and loved ones. Be courageous in the face of difficult choices, because the right decision isn’t always the easy one. Most of all, keep hoping and striving.

I like these messages. But that’s certainly not what drew me in and kept me reading. I am also a sucker for stories about young adults who save the world, or at least a small part of it. And DuPrau’s world is one worth saving, despite the desolation of its implied nuclear holocaust. However, few events have concrete details attached to them; there is simply the Disaster in which the world’s great cities were all destroyed (and this is one of the more overtly politicized messages in the book). The underground city of Ember, doomed though it may be, is equally compelling; and DuPrau absorbingly depicts the social and cultural differences between the refugees from Ember and the aboveground villagers with their hardscrabble lives. (There’s another politicized message: what happens when immigrants and residents clash.)

Perhaps what I enjoyed most were the wonderful details of everyday life, so lovingly imagined by the author and set down in clear, simple, and vivid language. These details made it a world I could believe in; and that’s what really drove the messages home. This could be our world, centuries from now, if we’re not careful.

About the author

Sarah Jamila Stevenson is a writer, artist, editor, graphic designer, professor of humanities, and localization QA tester, so she wears a teetering pile of hats. On any given day, she is very tired. She is the author of the middle grade graphic novel Alexis vs. Summer Vacation, and three YA novels, including the award-winning The Latte Rebellion.


  1. Ooh, ooh, OOOH! Just picked up these two from the library, and thought I’d get to them this weekend!!! Now I’m truly excited! I’ll let you know what I think… Someone commented to me that they reminded them of an Octavia Butler novel — so it was with some ambivalence that I picked them up — Butler does really well for adult sci-fi, but I wasn’t seeing how her enigmatic style would translate well to middle grade and YA. So! Looking forward to this!

  2. Wow, whomever said this was like Octavia Butler was a bit mistaken! What was both classic and challenging about these novels was the lack of strong ‘moral.’ There were certainly strong themes of self-reliance, community proficiency, and that kind of thing, but there was no “big” message about any certain type of person or group. Just that there are some people who want to fight… and others who want peace; some people who want to bewail what is, and others who work for change. I was really impressed with both these books myself.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.