If you haven't heard of Jeanne DuPrau's "Books of Ember" series, you will in the next few months. "Ember" is set in an underground city that's home to the 100-or-so people who survived what's ominously but vaguely called The Disaster. The city is stocked with light bulbs, clothes and canned goods, but when the power fails and the mayor starts hoarding the food (Bill Murray plays him in the upcoming movie), two tweens figure out how to escape to the aboveground world. In "The Diamond of Darkhold," the series' fourth volume that's due out on Aug. 26, the survivors find themselves in a town called Sparks. The Ember refugees discover a few hundred humans (and a fox) living in a kind of postnuclear winter, and they all have to figure out how to survive again—it's like an apocalypse inside an apocalypse. Sounds like a nice, dark shadow to cast over your summer beach reading, doesn't it? Even sunnier: the "Ember" books are written for kids, ages 9 to 12.
Once upon a time, doomsday stories—"War of the Worlds," "Planet of the Apes"—were adults-only fare. Today one of the hottest segment of children's literature is about surviving the end of the world. Scholastic is printing 200,000 copies of the teen-oriented "The Hunger Games," about 24 kids in the ruins of North America forced by the government to kill each other in a "Survivor"-like contest. In Susan Pfeffer's "Life As We Knew It," an asteroid crashes into the moon and causes extreme weather events on Earth. Random House has already sold a million copies of its tie-ins to "Wall-E," which stars a trash collecting robot and his cockroach buddy as the only creatures left in the decimated world. "Before 'Wall-E' opened, some of the mass merchandisers were doubtful about it," says Kate Klimo, vice president and publisher of Random House/Golden Books for Young Readers Group. "This is not cute little gourmet rats." You can blame some of this annihilation fixation on "Harry Potter," which opened the door to scarier kid-lit. But children's fiction has always reflected the reality it came from, and today's kids live in a dark place: September 11, global warming, Iraq. "We have more ways of ending the world than we had before," says DuPrau. "These are big, hard truths that are facing kids, and they need to know these things."
But are books about the apocalypse suitable for kids? "If they are not overwhelmingly scary," says James Garbarino, director of the Center for the Human Rights of Children at Loyola University. And thanks also to "Harry Potter," "we've loosened the standards of what we think is too scary," says Michael Grant, author of "Gone." The books also help kids understand that "there's a direct connection between things they may do and the end of the world," says Grant. "When I was a kid hiding under the desk from Russian missiles, no one ever said, 'Here, Michael, here's what we need to do to avoid that'." Kids' post-apocalyptic books aren't all doom and gloom. They typically feature smart, courageous children who figure out answers to problems with scant adult help, and they tend to end on a positive, if not happy, note. "You have an obligation when you're writing for a younger audience not to demolish all hope," says Pfeffer. "You have to leave some sense that life will get better."
These books are grown-up in another way, too. Scratch beneath their doomsday stories and you'll find some potent political messages. "Wall-E" is clearly a save-the-environment parable (and some conservatives have attacked it as too liberal, though others see Biblical themes at work, too). "City of Ember" could be read as an antinuclear story, or, according to Williams College professor Glenn Shuck, as a Christian one—the need to ascend to a higher place to escape the despair of everyday existence. Whatever their politics, these books seem to pack a spiritual message of sorts. "They make you think about enormous questions about human life as opposed to the daily things—why the Earth was created and so forth," says Wendy Doniger, professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago. The readers of these books may be small, but the topics are very big.