It’s been a long time waiting for fans of Jeanne DuPrau, author of The City of Ember, the bestselling 2003 YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic underground world whose inhabitants are contending with dwindling resources. DuPrau’s literary debut spawned a film adaptation as well as two sequels, The People of Sparks (2004) and The Diamond of Darkhold (2006), and a prequel, The Prophet of Yonwood (2008). The series has sold more than six million copies worldwide in all formats.
This October, two decades after DuPrau made such a splash, Random House Children’s Books will release her latest novel, Project F, in both hardcover and e-book formats. A 20th-anniversary edition of City of Ember in graphic novel format will be released simultaneously. Here we reveal the covers of Project F and City of Ember: The Graphic Novel. We also spoke with DuPrau about the impact of City of Ember’s success upon her subsequent writing career, how Covid jumpstarted Project F, and what she wants young readers to take away from her latest book.
A middle grade post-apocalyptic novel incorporating elements of steampunk, Project F is set on Earth, hundreds of years from now. A global catastrophe sparked by climate change has resulted in humans leading much simpler lives without many of the modern conveniences that their ancestors enjoyed, including cars, planes, televisions, and cell phones. When his six-year-old cousin, Lulu, is orphaned after a tragic accident, 13-year-old Keith travels alone on a steam train to retrieve her. After he and a stranger inadvertently switch their overnight bags during the journey, Keith discovers that the stranger is working on a secret government mission—Project F. If implemented, Project F will forever change life for the inhabitants of planet Earth. Fascinated by the high-tech world he has read about in history books and intrigued by the secret he has stumbled upon, Keith must decide between doing the right thing or pursuing his dreams of adventure.
There’s a good reason why it took DuPrau 15 years to follow up on the success of the City of Ember with Project F: she wanted to write another novel that would resonate with readers as did her debut. “When I finished the Ember books, I was very tired,” she confided, noting that she felt pressured by the commercial success of the series. “I had some ideas for other books, and I started quite a few of them—but they just did not work. I could not finish them. I have a lot of half-written books lying around.”
Relating that she has been interested in energy for a long time and “how we run the human world” with fossil fuels, DuPrau explained that her research on the subject led to a concern for the environment and the impact of people’s reliance on fossil fuels. For years, she tried to write a contemporary novel “in which I showed, somehow, the future of energy; it’s the future of the world as we are running it now on fossil fuels and where that might lead.”
Covid’s Silver Lining
While Covid has upended so many lives, in retrospect, it jumpstarted DuPrau’s career, unleashing her creative processes. In 2020, DuPrau was forced to remain sequestered for months inside her apartment in a retirement community in Santa Rosa, Calif., with only her dog for company.
“We were completely closed down,” she recalled. “We weren’t even allowed to come out of our apartments. I thought, if I’m going to be isolated like that, I’d better have something work on, or I will go crazy. It just happened that the same idea I’d been working on for all those years, I had a thought about how to make it work. I realized what I’d done before that was preventing it from working and how I could start again with this new idea. It took me more than a year to write it, but it gave me a project to focus on.”
DuPrau spent that spring and summer writing Project F from the perspective of characters living on Earth several hundred years from now. “It’s the time period that changed and that helped a lot. I can’t tell you a whole lot more without giving away the plot.” But, she adds, “I thought it would be good to imagine a positive future.”
Despite difficulties involving the structuring of Project F, once she solved that problem by setting it in the future, DuPrau said that the actual writing over the course of the next year or so was relatively easy, especially compared to writing City of Ember. DuPrau built the entire underground world in which City of Ember was set, she noted. “I had to make up everything about it; that was hard. For Project F, I didn’t have to make it all up. Ember was not a real place. This book takes place on this planet.”
Noting that City of Ember and Project F contain similar themes, Lettice emphasized that one of the strengths of Project F is that it takes place in a world very similar to ours. “What’s history to the main character is real life for us,” she pointed out. “I find that so intriguing as a reader. It’s always fun to know more than the main character does, feeling on edge because he doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into. Keith doesn’t have the knowledge that I do as the reader. It’s intriguing: is he going to make the same mistakes we did or is he going to figure it out? You’re kind of screaming at the book, ‘Don’t do it! Don’t get involved!’ ”
Project F is also, DuPrau said, the last novel she is going to write; she has no intentions of penning a sequel, even if it resonates as much with readers as City of Ember. “I’ve gotten old in the past few years,” said DuPrau, who is 78. “Writing is harder than it used to be because you have to sit for long periods, and it’s tiring. If I write another book, it would most likely be memoir rather than fiction.”
DuPrau denied “sending a message” in the fiction she writes, explaining that “the message is the novel.” She insists that in Project F, as in her previous work, she “was trying to tell a story about something that was important to [her] and trying to make it all seem interesting.”
If readers are to take away anything from Project F, it’s this, DuPrau said: “What are we doing to ourselves and as a result of that, what might happen? It’s more of a question than a message. I don’t know what the future is going to be, but it’s good to have questions about it, and to think about it as realistically as we can. Of course, young people now are going to have to live in whatever world happens to be here.”
The cover art, created by freelance book cover designer and illustrator Leo Nickolls, depicts Keith and Lulu in a dark forest at night, opening a golden door with light spilling out from inside, while a condor flies overhead.
Describing herself as “so pleased” with the cover art, DuPrau’s editor, Jenna Lettice, said she has long admired Nickolls’s work. “From the beginning,” she explained, “Jeanne and I knew we wanted a strong concept that conveyed a grand sense of nature, a little mystery, and some metaphorical elements to convey the tone and themes of the story without giving too much away. Leo did all that and more—I think he really captured the full beauty of Project F in an intriguing way.”
DuPrau concurred, saying, “This cover has drama—it looks scary and a little interesting. But my favorite cover of all time still is the original cover of Ember.”
As for Random House senior designer Bob Bianchini, the intention of the cover is to turn the title itself into an enigma, with the condor conveying a sense of flight. “The door,” he added, “satisfied so much of what we were trying to accomplish: a sense of mystery, discovery, and danger behind the door. The biggest challenge was that the novel is set hundreds of years in the future, but the imagery is not futuristic. It’s an old-school vision of the future.”
Project F by Jeanne DuPrau. Random House, $17.99 Oct. 10 ISBN 978-0-593-64380-8