The City of Ember
Are you afraid of the dark? Be glad you don't live in Ember, then.
Jeanne DuPrau's 2003 young adult novel The City of Ember paints a vivid picture of life in an underground city (named—you guessed it—Ember). Youngsters Lina and Doon have guessed that something is wrong because the lights are dimming, the supplies are running out, and there seems to be no escape.
Yep, things in Ember are not quite what they seem to be. Nobody in Lina and Doon's generation has ever known anything other than life in their city, ringed by absolute darkness outside its borders. Nobody knows how the generator works to keep the lights on—or why it's failing. Nobody knows why the cans of food are running out. In fact, a functioning Ember is all they have ever known. And as the electricity begins to fail, and the food stores dwindle, Lina and Doon must try to put the puzzle pieces together and figure out what's going wrong before it's too late to save their city.
Sure, it's a simple enough premise—a classic doomsday scenario. But what DuPrau does with the doomsday scenario gives this book a unique twist. How's that? Well, the survivors of the apocalypse don't know that they're living in a post-apocalyptic era. It turns out that Ember was constructed to be the last refuge of humans should disaster ruin the world… but none of the current residents of Ember know any of this. They're literally and figuratively in the dark. Life in Ember goes on the way it always has (well, except for the terrifying disruptions of electricity and the shortages of supplies). And since the people of Ember don't know what's been lost, how can they begin to solve the mystery of their existence?
If that doesn't sound like a recipe for some critical love, then we don't know what will. The City of Ember has nabbed all sorts of accolades, including being named an American Library Association Notable Book, a Kirkus 2003 Editor's Choice, Publisher's Weekly Flying Start, and a bunch of others, too. Plus they made a movie of it in 2008 starring Bill Murray. And in case you haven't gotten enough of the characters or the world, there are three books that follow: The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood (technically a prequel), and The Diamond of Darkhold.
Why Should I Care?
People are like frogs—yes, that sounds strange, but allow Shmoop to explain.
Surely you've heard of the frog that's boiled to death but doesn't seem to notice or care? If you put a frog in room temp water and slowly raise the temperature to boiling, the change happens so slowly that the frog doesn't notice, and it'll sit there, slowly boiling to death until—boom!—cuisses de grenouille. And of course, if you toss a frog in a pot of water that's already boiling, that frog'll jump right out.
Which brings us back to our original point: people are like frogs. See, over time, we can adjust to just about anything—including things that will eventually kill us. Things that might seem bizarre at first exposure are things that can become normal given time, no matter how harmful.
The citizens of Ember, for example, have totally adjusted to their living conditions. A person today might have trouble living underground and relying completely on electric lights for everything, but for Emberians (yep, we just made that word up), it's par for the course, standard everyday living, situation normal. They never even stop to consider why they live that way, or what it might mean for the world outside, much like the frog never stops to think, gee, it's getting awful hot in here.
And that lackadaisical attitude can have some disastrous consequences. We humans have passed down info from generation to generation for thousands of years, which is why we still have the wheel, and fire, and now, the internet. But the citizens of Ember aren't so good at passing along that info, which means they don't quite understand just how precarious their existence is. As long as the lights are on (for the most part), they won't go worrying about why and how they might turn off.
Somehow, Lina and Doon manage to challenge that status quo, which really makes this book stand out. From their example, we learn that questioning what's normal, what we take for granted, what's handed down, we can secure a safer, more informed future.