My readercrush on Jeanne DuPrau has only grown with the second book in the Ember series, THE PEOPLE OF SPARKS. In a world recovering from apocalyptic war and disease, how will a small town which has only just begun to prosper respond to an unexpected influx of refugees? Both story and style are clear, direct and unshowy: every step follows simply and seamlessly from the last. (Speaking to DuPrau’s background as a technical writer perhaps?) Before you know it you’re looking at a rich and nuanced picture of conflict–over resource and identity intertwined–where group belonging is both necessary and dangerous.

“Doon felt frozen. All he could think was, He’s right. Of course he’s right. But we’re right, too.”

The book is 100% adventure story and at the same time unapologetically morally serious. I would call it an illustrative introduction to sectarianism but that makes it sound boring, and it isn’t. DuPrau never flinches from consequence, but she also presents a meaningful picture of hope. And like Byatt she feels in her bones the irreplaceable romance, the great humanist sacredness, of work, every kind of real work. I read the book aloud to kiddo and my voice cracked with tears toward the end. Lucky for me, there’s a third book.

THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau

I recently stumbled upon an old secondhand copy of THE CITY OF EMBER by Jeanne DuPrau that I’d once bought somewhere—a garage sale, I think it was—having found the film reasonably entertaining. I was surprised at how warmly I felt towards this children’s book upon reading it. To summarise it suggests a familiar genre feel: two twelve-year-olds must save their city, which is falling apart in a post-apocalyptic world which has lost its memory of the past. But it has a quiet, serious simplicity which I think sets it apart. In many respects the book is an elegantly crafted puzzle box, and a love letter to scientific literacy, in a first principles sense of the phrase. Lina and Doon can only rescue themselves by paying careful attention to the physical world around them and teasing out—partly with method and persistence, and partly with simple luck—the natural mysteries of existence. Their longing for something real and important, for an honest understanding which is practical, and can be shared, is powerfully contrasted against the temptations of status climbing and acquisition, embodied, in this strange new economy, in cans of peaches and colour pencils. As a children’s allegory for true-heartedness in the face of corruption, it is remarkably clear without being trite. I am looking forward to the second book in the series.