Jeanne DuPrau grew up in the 1950s and 1960s with a fear of the world coming to an end. "People were building bomb shelters, and I was afraid of the idea that we could wipe out the human race," she says, citing one inspiration for The City of Ember (Random House), which is set in a postapocalyptic underground world in which the power supply, food and other necessities are dwindling.
But she also credits the fact that, as a child, she loved "all books that had to do with magical things." Her favorites included Mary Poppins, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers—and especially C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. "I loved reading books in which the child discovers a whole new world," she says. And in the subterranean city of Ember, it's up to two 12-year-olds, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, to find out why supplies are running out and to save their fellow citizens—by discovering a whole new world.
If readers feel as though they've stepped into a three-dimensional underground setting in DuPrau's novel, it's no wonder. "I had a mental picture [of Ember when I began the book], and it became clearer as I wrote. I had to draw a map of it so I would know how people went from one place to another," DuPrau says. The seeds for the story also had a chance to take root: "I had the idea for the book in my mind quite a long time ago. I think 20 years ago."
The author has written nonfiction books for instructional use and had worked as an editor in educational publishing, but never thought of herself as a fiction writer. "I didn't say to myself, 'I want to write a children's book,' I just thought, 'I want to write this story.' Because of its nature, I knew it would be a children's book," she says.
When she finished the manuscript, DuPrau sent it to Houghton Mifflin (she had read in the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators newsletter that an editor there was looking for such a book). "The editor wrote back a very nice letter saying she thought it was too much like [Lois Lowry's] The Giver, and it wasn't for them, but said she was sure I'd have success elsewhere," DuPrau recalls. At that point, she decided to get an agent and sent the book to someone who had just started her own agency, Nancy Gallt. Gallt sent the book to various publishers, and it went to auction; it wound up with Jim Thomas at Random House.
From there, the story is almost like a fairy tale. DuPrau says, "The suggestions that Jim made on Ember were things that I agreed would be for the better about 85% of the time. There were some things that he saw about the book that were a complete surprise to me. [For instance,] in the original version of Ember, the city was overcrowded and people were sleeping in the streets. But Jim said the city didn't feel crowded to him; it seemed empty and desolate. He thought that either I should make Ember feel more crowded or not have people sleeping in the streets."
Random House took an unusual approach to promoting this first novel: they sent her on a five-city pre-publication tour to meet booksellers, librarians and other influential members of the children's books community—perhaps an indication of the publisher's confidence of the book's success.
For those curious to know what Lina and Doon discover beyond the realm of Ember, they won't have too long to wait—DuPrau has already finished the next book and sent it off to her editor. "I hadn't thought of writing a sequel when I wrote the first book," she says. "With Ember, I had the whole story in my mind. I had to get from the beginning to the end, which was hard, but I knew where I was going. With the second book, it wasn't nearly as clear, so it took a long time. I realized how much I didn't know about how [this future] world works. How does the economy work? How many people does it take to make a viable community?"
As she awaits Thomas's comments on the sequel, the author may be found playing the piano at her home near Palo Alto, Calif., walking her cairn terrier, Ethan, or working in her garden, where she grows vegetables and flowers. Although she is not currently at work on a new book, DuPrau thinks her next one will likely be another work of fiction. Her passion for writing comes through when she describes one of the important reasons behind writing Ember: "I wanted to write a book that would make people love the world, that would make people see it for the wonderful place it is. The world is threatened in so many ways right now that it seemed important to me to say that—not in a messagey way, but to have that come through."