Book: “Princess Academy” by Shannon Hale
Publishing Info: Bloomsbury, April 2007
Where Did I Get this Book: the library!
Book Description: Miri lives on a mountain where, for generations, her ancestors have quarried stone and lived a simple life. Then word comes that the king’s priests have divined her small village the home of the future princess. In a year’s time, the prince himself will come and choose his bride from among the girls of the village. The king’s ministers set up an academy on the mountain, and every teenage girl must attend and learn how to become a princess.
Miri soon finds herself confronted with a harsh academy mistress, bitter competition among the girls, and her own conflicting desires to be chosen and win the heart of her childhood best friend. But when bandits seek out the academy to kidnap the future princess, Miri must rally the girls together and use a power unique to the mountain dwellers to save herself and her classmates.
Review: I was trained as a public librarian with an emphasis on young adult and children’s services. Bizarrely, this resulted in a high exposure to young adult titles, children’s stories, and pictures books with only a few books scattered in between that could be rightly categorized as “middle grade.” My definition for this group is books that are enjoyed by readers aged 10-13. Therefore, in an attempt to self-educate myself and to stay up to date with this segment of readers, I’ve been slowly working my way through Shannon Hale’s collection of works. She’s a well-known and respected middle grade author and I’ve enjoyed her other titles. “Princess Academy” is also a Newbery Honor Book, which further speaks to her prowess in this genre, and all in all, I can see why its praises have been so loudly sung.
Right off the bat, I was skeptical of this book’s premises. The title alone seems to imply that what we have here is a story about a bunch of girls vying for a prince’s attention and I’ve been burned by this before (side-eyeing “The Selection”). But I was relieved and surprised to discover that “Princess Academy” was so much more than that!
One of the most important aspects of this book, for me, was its depictions of friendship and family. The set-up is primed for catty-girl-drama, and while Miri does struggle with her relationship with some of the girls, the reader is presented with honest depictions of fully fleshed out teenage girls. Personalities may clash, but it is never reduced to silliness. If anything, it is depicted as the typical growing-up process that all children face. Lessons like diplomacy, sensitivity, and empathy are all in play.
Another of my favorite themes of this book was its emphasis on learning. Miri and her fellow academy girls come from a very poor village where education is completely lacking. In this way, the princess academy is presented as important in the most basic way: it is not only a tool by which to prepare a princess, but a unique opportunity to be taken advantage of by a group of girls who otherwise would have had very few options. Miri’s growing realization of the size of the world and all of the knowledge that exists is wonderful to follow. And, while the book does use this gained education as a plot tool, there is a clear emphasis on the fact that Miri realizes her own love of learning purely for its own merit. This is a great message for a middle grade novel.
There were also some fun elements of mystery within the story, including Miri’s friend Britta’s hidden past and the slow reveal of powers of her humble home. All of this is tied up neatly in simple, yet lovely, language. And, while the story does have sequels, it can also be read as a stand-alone book. All of this said, the book is firmly set in the category of middle grade. The writing style and language use is simple and the story is straightforward. However, if you enjoy middle grade novels, this book is definitely worth checking out!
Rating 8: Very strong middle grade novel highlighting great themes of friendship and learning!
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