Oops, late again! I failed to notice this hadn't been quite finished and set to go live this morning! Well, better late than never.
Title: Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher: Bloomsbury Children's Books. 314 pages
Miri lives on Mt. Eskel, in a tiny village whose life is the quarrying of linder stone. But her father will not let her quarry stone, and she feels left out and useless because of it. When an announcement comes from the king down below that the prince will choose his bride from among the girls of their village, and that all girls between 12 and 18 must attend an academy to be made ready in case they are chosen, Miri doesn't know if she wants to be the princess, but she does know she wants to be the best student. In the end, what she learns in and out of class saves the day and changes everything.
I've seen this one on the shelves at the library for a long time, but I hadn't picked it up because of the princess thing. You know: all that girly Disney-princess stuff that's eating so many girls alive. I finally grabbed it in a hurry because I wanted to look at more middle grade fantasy. Imagine my surprise when I found it was far from the sort of princess book I expected (it really has more in common with some of the Boarding School books I have always enjoyed).
We writhe with Miri under her shame and rage at the injustice handed out by the harsh teacher sent to prepare them for "society." Yet we also see even more quickly than Miri that learning to read and write might have some benefits, and that there needs to be something more to life in the village than cutting stone, because not all people are meant for that. Hale builds a nice tension between Miri's need to see the wider world and find a place for herself, and her love of her home and doubts about being a princess.
I do wonder a bit about ages of readers and protagonists. This is a Middle Grade book, and there's nothing in it that's a problem for a 10-year-old. And yet. Miri is 14 at the start of the book, nearly 16 by the end, and the whole premise of preparing a girl to be the bride of the prince is not a childish thing. There is love, passion, and adult issues to be faced. This seems to be the way of kids' books, but I'm a little uneasy. I was made the more so by the feeling through most of the book that Miri was younger--she read to me more like 12 or so, which fits better with the audience but worse with the whole love and marriage thing. Do girls of ten really need to be thinking that true love will come to them at 16?
That may be a discussion for another day. For now, I will say that this book won a Newbery Honor, and it probably deserves it. I certainly didn't want to put it down, and the message about the value of education and seeing beyond one's narrow horizons was powerful and well-communicated without preaching. And not a pink princess in sight.
Full Disclosure: I borrowed Princess Academy from my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review. The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."