Title: Princess Academy
Author: Shannon Hale
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA, 2007
Miri and her family lives near the quarry on Mount Eskel, and have lived there for generations. She desperately wants to prove she is useful and work in the quarry alongside her sister and father, but he won't allow her to set foot inside it. Things in their day-to-day village life change, however, when it is announced that Mount Eskel is where the next queen will come from. All of the girls between the ages of 12 and 18 must attend the Princess Academy, a time-honored tradition in the kingdom, where they will get a basic education and learn how to be proper ladies. One of these girls will be chosen by the crown prince as his bride. Though the girls and their families resist at first, eventually all those of age head to the academy, a 3-hour journey in a building that had been abandoned years ago. Tutor Olana, their appointed teacher, is overly strict and quick to punish, quickly making the rest of the girls resent Miri when she causes them to miss an anticipated visit home. But despite all this, the girls begin to get excited about the possibility of becoming a princess, and though Miri tells herself she just wants to prove that mountain girls can be intelligent when she throws herself into her studies, a part of her wonders too.
When I heard the title Princess Academy, I kind of rolled my eyes a little. It sounded like something fluffy that I wouldn't be interested in, but it was chosen for the library's middle school book club. I'm so glad it was, or it never would have been on my radar despite its Newbery Honor. What a fantastic story! The world Hale creates is enchanting, though for a fantasy there is not a whole lot of magic or fantastic incidents (with the exception of the mountain people's ability to communicate via a sort of mental telepathy), so it's more like a fairy tale than a fantasy in that respect.
One of the biggest themes in this novel is the value of a good education. The girls have no idea how to read or write, or even what the value of the linder (a type of stone, the descriptions of which brought to my mind a type of marble) they mine from the quarry is. Miri is fascinated by all this, and begins to try to figure out a way to use it to the village's advantage. I love that this was pretty much the main theme; it doesn't matter where you were born or how you were raised, the potential for intelligence just needs to be nurtured and it will begin to make a difference in the lives of the learners and their loved ones.
Miri was an incredibly strong character, too. She has a strong sense of what's fair, and she knows she and the other girls are bright. She wants the very best for her family and her village, and though she feels like she is too small and therefore useless in the quarry where everyone she knows makes their living, she still grasps for ways she can be useful to her community.
One other thing I really liked was how the girls weren't sure if they were interested in actually marrying the prince. It's nice how the prince isn't this mythical Prince Charming figure for them; he is just a guy, albeit one with enormous power. For them, it was more the idea of a different sort of life than the one they know they will be leading if they don't get chosen.
There is a lot of tension throughout the novel, too. Miri is ostracized for a good portion of the book by the other girls because of her misstep at the beginning of their academy education, causing her to become friends with the "outsider" of the group, a lowlander (someone not from the mountain) named Britta, who has her own problems, namely being an outcast even before the academy. The competition is high for the title of Academy Princess, awarded to the girl who gets the highest marks right before the ball where the prince is supposed to choose his bride. And there is the matter of the high suspense that happens toward the end of the book, which I will refrain from going into detail here because of spoilers.
All in all, I highly recommend this book to fans of Hale's other work, strong female characters, and fairy tale stories. It certainly deserved its Newbery Honor. AND I just found out a sequel is due out next month! I can't wait to see where Miri's story goes next.