Study Guide

The City of Ember

By Jeanne DuPrau

The City of Ember Introduction

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.

What is The City of Ember About and 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.

The City of Ember Resources


Jeanne DuPrau's Website
Meet Jeanne, who's a pretty interesting lady. Did you know she's got a puppy named Jockey? Neither did we.

The Random House Page on The City of Ember
Complete with eerie sound effects.

The City of Ember Wiki
Fans and devotees can beef up this wiki, dedicated solely to The City of Ember and its sequels. It's pretty sparse, so get crackin' Shmoopers.

Tumblr for The City of Ember
Because why not? Every book needs a tumblr.

Quiet on Set
Get a good look at the cast of characters behind the scenes.

Movie or TV Productions

The City of Ember (2008)
Starring Bill Murray, in a very odd, and yet oddly appropriate casting.

Will There Be a Sequel to the Movie?
The actors hem and haw here.

Articles and Interviews

Interview with Jeanne DuPrau on The City of Ember and its Sequels
DuPrau talks about her writing process, her feelings on the movie, and her terrier, just 'cause.

Chat With Jeanne
How does she feel about promoting her own work? Why does she think of herself as an introvert? Read on to find out.

The Allegory of the Cave?
This reviewer addresses how we treat people who tell us unpleasant truths, as Lina and Doon do. Apparently it has something to do with Plato.


Trailer for The City of Ember
We dare you not to buy the DVD afterwards.

Book Trailer for The City of Ember
This trailer—for the book, not the movie—is intriguing and beautifully made.

Saoirse Ronan a.k.a Lina
It's pretty neat to hear about the book's plot as interpreted by this actress. She's got some great interpretations.


Audio Excerpt from The City of Ember
Courtesy of our fellow bookworms at NPR.


Movie Poster
Discover the Secret. Or something.

Mayor Bill
Check out his pudgy gut.

City Skyline
Does the movie imagine Ember the way you did?

Meet the Author
Or at least, you could, if she weren't hiding behind a huge book.