The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

People of SparksInformation

Goodreads: The People of Sparks
Series: Book of Ember #2
Source: Library
Published: 2004


Having escaped from their dying city, the citizens of Ember seek refuge in the surface town of Sparks.  A world-wide disaster has left the land and the people unstable, however, and though the refugees are permitted to stay in Sparks for six months, their hosts resent having to provide them with food and with the skills necessary to their future survival.


If I had to choose a word to describe The People of Sparks, I would produce only the nondescript word “nice.”  It features likable protagonists and an interesting enough plot, but the trajectory of the story is obvious and the themes often seem heavy-handed.  Though some middle grade books transcend their label to appeal to readers of all ages, this book positions itself squarely as a selection most suitable for younger readers.  The treatment of conflict and conflict resolution often seems overly simplified; adults accustomed to the nuances involved in navigating relationships will find the idea that one small action can stop a war admirable and idealistic, but perhaps unbelievable.

The small-scale nature of the conflicts only add to the sense that this is a middle grade book meant to teach moral lessons to children.  The growing enmity between the citizens of Ember and the citizens of Sparks inspires various characters to draw parallels between their difficulty and the world wars that resulted in the near eradication of mankind.  The book thus announces its intention for the situation in Sparks to serve as a microcosm of the world; the reluctance of Sparks to share their food with starving outsiders becomes a mirror image of the reluctance of nations to get along.  The parallels are admittedly just a tad fuzzy.  After all, characters describe the causes of wars by illustrations such as “some people want what they don’t have,” yet it seems odd to compare greed for wealth or oil with the request from the people of Ember that they receive food from Sparks until they learn how to cultivate their own.  Perhaps none of that matters, however.  The real point being hammered home is that disagreements lead to violence and destruction.

Thus the book focuses on a small-town conflict between the citizens of two towns that eventually erupts into their miniature version of war.  An irate town leader of Sparks, sick of the people of Ember eating their food, brings out an antique cannon to force the outsiders to leave.  The people of Ember, tired of feeling like second-class citizens, have formed themselves into a mob armed with knives and heavy sticks.  This is a middle grade book, so of course all ends happily, but in case you don’t want to know the precise outcome, beware of spoilers ahead.  Having heard repeatedly that small acts of kindness can turn the tide of war, the two young protagonists do just that–they show themselves good people by helping to save the town of Sparks from the conflagration that results from the misfiring of the cannon.  And, suddenly, all is well.  The people of Ember are integrated into Sparks, the people of Sparks are happy and willing to share their food.  The young troublemakers who helped ignite the war conveniently all leave.

(Spoilers in this paragraph!)  Unfortunately, it all seems too neat.  The people of Ember help to save a town in whichy they have a vested interest in remaining (remember, they can’t grow their own food and they don’t know how to build shelter or make clothes or do any other task to protect themselves from the oncoming winter) and the people of Sparks take this as an indication of their good will toward Sparks?  All of a sudden all enmity is forgotten?  And the villains willingly get rid of themselves, travelling off into the wilderness where they will presumably die from starvation?  I simply didn’t buy it.  The message is sound–small acts of kindness can have big results–but the execution is weak.

The story of the people of Ember continues in two more volumes, but I doubt I will follow it.  The characters are not particularly vivid and the plots thus far have been too predictable to make me want to invest more time in this world.  Furthermore, the central idea of each book thus far has failed to demonstrate to me its need to take up an entire volume; a stronger story would have incorporated the escape from Ember and the ruckus in Sparks as episodes in a single longer work.  I looked forward to reading this series since the initial publication of The City of Ember.  Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I read it when I was younger.

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