Thursday, August 15, 2013

Book Review: Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

I shamelessly admit that I pulled this book out because of its cover. Little cottages stacked on a rocky mountainside…a string of girls in shapeless dresses holding hands…it seemed so unprincess-like that it caught my attention at the book store and I bought it. It helped my decision along that the book had won the Newberry Honor Award in 2006.

And I loved the book, which is completely deserving of the award, and am thrilled to have it on my shelf for easy rereading. Shannon Hale is a fabulous author, and her writing is filled with beautiful images and phrases—the sort that make you think “yes! I have always wanted a way to express that and could never come up with something so fitting!”

The premise of the book is simple: the sages of the kingdom of Danland have prophesied that the prince will marry a girl from the province of Mt. Eskel. But this highlights many problems. First, there are no eligible, noble girls! The trade of Mt. Eskel is mining, first and last, and while important and valuable, the society there produces young ladies who can hurl stones, but wouldn’t know the first thing about “the rules of conversation.” Which leads to the second problem: all the non-eligible girls have no education—making it very hard for them to become eligible! Solution? The Princess Academy.

Tutor Olana, who is charged with the responsibility of changing these mountain miners into pretty princesses is about the farthest thing from a bosom friend. Her rules are strict, severe, and merciless. The girls are taken three hours away from their village to a lodge large enough for them all, and though it is supposed to be an honor to be at the academy, it seems more like prison. Miri, our main character and heroine, quickly becomes estranged from the others because she dares to speak out against the unfairness and the entire group loses their rest day at home in punishment. What else is there for Miri to do but study hard? At the academy, she learns all her lessons and the secret of stone-speak, the mystery of the mines.

When the prince comes, they all acquit themselves beautifully, but he leaves again without choosing a bride. Miri is not sure whether to be pleased (doesn’t Peder, her best friend, back at the village maker her heart beat fast and her palms sweat?) or frustrated (didn’t the prince say that he enjoyed meeting her the best of all the girls?) Faced with another winter on the mountain, things start to unravel…and then bandits show up, believing easy money is theirs if they can get their hands on the future princess. Miri has to use all her wits and wile to save the girls and unite her small town once again. She learns the reason why her father never allowed her to work in the mines—the only meaningful occupation in the village. She learns to understand and care for those who are unlike her and look for things that she care share in common. And she learns where she really belongs. Learning, in fact, becomes her favorite thing.

At least after a first read, I would unhesitatingly put this on a list of stellar books that any middle-school girl would love (and most other girls besides!) 

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