Shannon Hale's Princess Academy
Book review by Monica Friedman
Newbery Honor-Winning Story of a Young Girl’s Courage and Strength
Miri’s mountain village is so remote that traders only come through once a year, and so unimportant that they are not even represented at court, and hardly count as part of the kingdom. Their lives are difficult; the ground, rich in the valuable linder stone, grows little food. Survival on Mount Eskel depends on mining enough linder during the year to trade for a year’s worth of food when the traders arrive.
Everyone mines linder, except Miri, whose father forbids her to step into the mines. Miri is smaller than the other girls, but she still wishes to be part of the community and help. Although she tends the goats and barters with the traders, she feels destined to never contribute, until the day the king’s messenger announces that the prince is destined to marry a girl from the mountains. Worse, all the teenage girls are to be taken from their homes and sent to a princess academy for a year, so that they can learn to properly comport themselves before the prince’s arrival and ultimate decision.
Many of the girls don’t want to go. To be a princess is nothing compared to their love of family and community, but the soldiers give them no choice, and they are marched off to the nearest suitable building, a three hour walk from home, and delivered to the unkind graces of Tutor Olana, who expects the girl “to obey me in all things,” and clearly believes that her presence in the outlandish district is a punishment, that the girls are too stupid and provincial to learn anything.
Punishments at Princess Academy are harsh and easily earned, while privilege and rewards are almost nonexistent. Some of the subjects seem stupid to girls who have spent their lives working with their hands, but Miri works hard to learn how to read, and discovers that there are useful ideas contained in letters and books. In the study of economics, she finds that the traders have been fleecing her community for years, while the rules of diplomacy teach her new ways to deal with the opposition, especially Tutor Olana.
There are mysteries along the way. How do the mountain people communicate with each other without using words? What is the true value of linder? And who is Britta, the foreign girl who comes along to princess school? Despite herself, as Miri works on these enigmas, she can’t help but reach for the ultimate goal: to achieve the highest marks and become Academy Princess, singled out to wear a beautiful dress when she meets the prince, and to earn a mansion for her family if she is chosen to be his wife. Review continues.
A joy to read, Princess Academy is imbued with a thriving literary sensibility, every page bursting with apt metaphor and delightful simile, painting a world as vibrant as the living mountains of Miri’s home. Miri’s journey is one from innocence to understanding, from weakness to strength, and from childishness to adulthood. This is not a story about princesses, but about the potential of any child to achieve great things in any setting.
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