The City of Ember

The City of EmberMy son read The City of Ember for school and thought I might like it as well. He and I had opposite reactions, actually—he thought it was kind of boring until toward the end, whereas I found the earlier parts more compelling. Regardless, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Lina and Doon live in Ember and, like all the residents of Ember, they’re assigned jobs by random draw at the age of 12. Lina is assigned to the Pipeworks—a horrible job underground that she doesn’t want. Doon switches with her—he drew Messenger, but he’d rather be in the Pipeworks where the generator is because he suspects something is wrong with it and he hopes to fix it and save Ember.

See, Ember exists in complete darkness. It’s utterly reliant on an ancient and increasingly unreliable generator to supply any light. There are no batteries, no candles, no oil—there is only electricity. When the lights go out, either on purpose at “night” or due to a blackout, there’s no light at all. Day and night are only determined through a clock that they think isn’t too far off—but when it isn’t wound, there’s no way to tell exactly how much time they lost. Beyond Ember is only darkness—an endless darkness from which few return, and those who do return have lost hold of some of their sanity.

Through their jobs, Lina and Doon become more and more certain that Ember is doomed, and they join together to try to save their community.

As you read, you become aware that Ember is on our world, sometime in the future, and that it must be underground. There are little details dropped throughout that Lina and Doon don’t understand, but the reader will. It’s interesting seeing familiar objects through the eyes of someone who has no idea what they are. We have no idea of the state of the world above, but it becomes clear that Ember was created to save humanity and that it was never intended to be permanent—the Builders knew that at some point the resources would run out and the people of Ember would need to come back to the surface. However, the guidance of the Builders has been lost to time and corruption. It will take a leap of faith for the residents of Ember to leave the only world they’ve ever known.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid


Eventually the book makes it clear that unquestioning obedience can be a problem, but Ember survives because the residents do what’s best for the community. They do the jobs that they’re assigned without complaint. They accept the rationing and the hardship that comes as more and more things start to fail (the now-defunct refrigerator serves as storage, for instance). Questioning, thinking, and exploring are all actively discouraged. Of course, it’s by ignoring these rules that Lina and Doon find a way to save the people of Ember.


The resources in Ember are incredibly limited. When the Builders first made Ember, the storerooms were full. But now many of the appliances are broken, they can only grow foods like potatoes and turnips, they have no industry to make new clothes and other supplies. Everything is wearing out.

Therefore, things are used until they are beyond usefulness. Clothes are mended and handed down. Paper is scarce, and Lina saves labels from canned food so she and her little sister Poppy can draw on the backs. The Messengers—people in red jackets who run around town to deliver verbal messages—are the primary way to send even minor messages like “Can you come over for dinner tonight?”

It’s likely to make readers feel sorry for the people of Ember and to be acutely conscious of their own conspicuous consumption, especially for kids who are aware of how we’re using up some of our planet’s resources.

Death and Defining Family

Lina and Poppy’s parents died of the coughing sickness sometime before the novel starts. Lina and Poppy live with their grandmother, but she’s getting delusional and sick. Poppy is a toddler, so a lot falls on Lina who needs to be both caretaker and provider. Eventually the grandmother dies as well in a sad scene where Lina can do nothing but try to comfort her. There are no hospitals and medicine is scarce. A kindly neighbor who now has no other family takes them in—she says it only makes sense.

Doon lives with his father. His mother is never mentioned.


With so few resources, sharing isn’t always easy. There’s a black market of canned goods like peaches and pineapple. There isn’t enough for everyone, so the limited amount is hoarded and only available to those who are willing to put their own desires above the needs of the community. Lina finds out that a friend has access to these things, and she struggles with what she wants vs. what’s fair. Greed is a dark hunger inside everyone and it can take over if you let it.

Lina really craves color—almost everything in Ember is brown due to age and lack of light. When she has the chance to buy two colored pencils, she gives in to her greed. She spends limited funds on these luxuries, meaning waiting another month for necessities like a new(ish) coat for her grandmother. While she’s buying these pencils, Poppy wanders away from her. There’s a blackout and Poppy is well and truly lost. Although she finds Poppy again, the pencils which were a joy are now always tinged with guilt and fear.

Out of greed, one of the previous mayors of Ember tried to open the box the Builders had left which contained the instructions for leaving Ember—he failed, but then hid the box in shame which meant that when it did open, no one knew. His greed condemned them all to their poverty-stricken life. The current mayor is corrupt, hoarding lightbulbs and canned goods while the people of the town go without. He’s very fat—a physical metaphor for his greed. Honestly, that bothered me a bit—there’s an implication of fat people being greedy, dishonest, and corrupt.


Doon is full of anger—he sees what’s happening to Ember and he can’t figure out why other people aren’t equally upset. It may be the anger of the righteous and the correct, but it leads to bad places. He throws something and accidentally hits his father. Later he accidentally destroys something. Anger can be useful, but it can also control you and lead to unintended consequences.


Doon thinks he’s smarter than most people around him. He’s probably right, but, like with his anger, it leads to some unintended places. He’s certain he’s going to be the one to figure out how to save Ember and then everyone will hail him as hero and his father will be proud of him. It’s obvious that his father is already proud of him and loves him very much, so trying to make his dad proud rings more of excuse than real motivation.

When Lina and Doon figure out the instructions that will save Ember, they don’t tell anyone. They decide to make a big announcement because of the glory it will bring. Doon doesn’t even tell his father because he thinks his dad will be more proud if he learns about this in a public announcement. Of course it turns out that they can’t make their announcement, and they leave Ember without telling anyone else how to get out. In the end they manage to fix this by throwing a message wrapped around a rock down into Ember from a great height (my son points out “They’re really lucky they didn’t kill anyone with that rock.” That thought crossed my mind as well) but I was kind of appalled that their quest for glory nearly ended with the loss of their entire community and they sort of shrugged it off.


The Believers get together and sing songs. They’re optimists who believe that the Builders will return to save them. Joining the Believers is seen as a way to gain comfort, but the book makes it clear that they’re believing in something that won’t save them. Yes, the Builders did provide a way for the people of Ember to be saved, but corruption disrupted that. Salvation comes through actively searching for answers and using intelligence to piece things together.


I enjoyed the book, especially the clues throughout that made me feel like I knew more about their world than Lina and Doon did, but it was pretty unsubtle in its message. I can certainly see why it’s being used in classrooms—there’s a lot to talk about here and it’s easily accessible. This is appropriate for kids maybe 9 and up, especially if they’re starting to become aware of the issues of limited resources and wastefulness.


The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Published in 2003 by Yearling
First book in a series
Read a paperback borrowed from my son’s school





Speak Your Mind