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This is a book that haunted me for years.

A girl lives on a very low level of an ant-hill-like society where most people live underground (supposedly due to a polluted surface). Most of the people around her are bred to be low-intelligence or are possibly the descendants of political prisoners. She is intelligent so she often gets in trouble. The levels of the underground world correspond to a class system, with the aristocracy living on the highest levels. There is a classroom scene where she is forced to watch videos over and over about how to tie her shoes.

A boy mysteriously shows up from the surface of the planet (his parents are farmers?) and together they escape to the surface and she learns everything she has been told is wrong and she was actually part of a subterranean slave society.

Ring any bells?

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I think that it's This Time of Darkness (1980) by Helen Mary Hoover.

Eleven-year-old Amy lives in a decaying underground city. Ignored by her mother and under surveillance by authorities because she can read , Amy reluctantly finds herself befriending Axel-a strange boy who claims to have come from a mythical place called ... Outside . Is Axel crazy? Amy knows there is no such place as Outside.

But what if there were? What would it be like?

Curious, Amy convinces Axel to escape. What she hopes to find is something Axel remembers called freedom . But what she discovers is beyond her wildest dreams.

Just read it again last year when I found it on a shelf at my parents' house. Everything sounds right apart from the shoe laces bit, but perhaps I forgot that bit.

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The City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau is a good idea -- a lot of similarities -- but it does not correspond well to the remembered details of the question. (I read The City of Ember recently, with my kid.) I think user13284 is correct.

Here is publisher's blurb from Amazon:

Eleven-year-old Amy lives in a decaying underground city. Ignored by her mother and under surveillance by authorities because she can read, Amy reluctantly finds herself befriending Axel-a strange boy who claims to have come from a mythical place called ...Outside. Is Axel crazy? Amy knows there is no such place as Outside.

But what if there were? What would it be like?

Curious, Amy convinces Axel to escape. What she hopes to find is something Axel remembers called freedom. But what she discovers is beyond her wildest dreams.

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  • BTW, I had to make this an answer, because it was too long for a comment. In case anyone is wondering.
    – dmm
    Dec 13, 2013 at 22:53
  • As observed by Cristobol Polychronopolis, the plot summary quoted in this answer is actually from the Amazon page for This Time of Darkness (1980) by Helen Mary Hoover rather than The City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau. Apr 5 at 15:08
  • It appears that dmm's intention was to comment on Gabriel Sklan's answer and provide a plot summary for user13284's answer, rather than directly answer the question itself. I've now added plot summaries to both of those other users' answers, so this answer no longer serves any purpose other than to agree with one answer and disagree with another, which is not what answers should be used for in my opinion. As such, I'm flagging it for deletion as a non-answer. Apr 5 at 15:10
  • You probably won't ever see this comment, but on the off-chance that you do, if you wanted to disagree with Gabriel Sklan's answer, what you should have done in my view is leave a shorter comment on that answer. And if you wanted to provide a plot summary for user13284's answer, what you should have done in my view is edit one directly into that answer, like I did. Posting it all together as a separate answer was a strange way to go about things, regardless of the character limit on comments. Apr 5 at 15:19
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That may be The City of Ember (2003) by Jeanne DuPrau.

Many hundreds of years ago, the city of Ember was created by the Builders to contain everything needed for human survival. It worked…but now the storerooms are almost out of food, crops are blighted, corruption is spreading through the city and worst of all—the lights are failing. Soon Ember could be engulfed by darkness…

But when two children, Lina and Doon, discover fragments of an ancient parchment, they begin to wonder if there could be a way out of Ember. Can they decipher the words from long ago and find a new future for everyone? Will the people of Ember listen to them?

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  • Could you flesh this answer out by describing what elements in City of Ember match the question's description?
    – user1027
    Mar 22, 2013 at 18:21

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