The people who live on Mount Eskel mine linder, the marble-like substance that’s highly prized by those who live in the lowlands. Even though they’ve always supplied the linder for the King’s palace and other important buildings, the mountain folk have their own culture and know very little about what happens beneath their mountain. Therefore, they’re just as surprised as the lowlanders are when the priests ordain that the prince’s bride will come from Mount Eskel. Since the mountain girls are uneducated, a temporary school will be established so they can be brought up to snuff before they meet the prince.
Miri’s father has never let her work in the quarry with her peers, so Miri has always assumed that her father thought she was too small and, therefore, useless. But after her initial shock at the harsh treatment she receives from the headmistress at the Princess Academy, Miri is surprised to discover that an education gives her valuable skills that her people need. She also discovers some interesting facts about her people’s connection to the mountain and uses her new knowledge to help her friends.
I listened to the audio version of Princess Academy with my 12-year-old son and my 9-year-old daughter. We all agreed that Princess Academy deserves its Newbery Honor, for it is absolutely charming. I’m enough of a feminist that I was suspicious of a book about becoming a princess (and truly I only picked it up because of the Newbery Honor and my previous experience with Shannon Hale), but I had misjudged this book by its title (though its cover does it justice).
Princess Academy is not the book I was expecting. Instead, it is a refreshing story about children living in a rural culture where there is much beauty, love, and wholesomeness. These girls, in contrast to many of the girls I read about these days, love their families and generally have sweet relationships with each other. There’s some rivalry brought on by their situation at the academy but, mercifully, Shannon Hale downplays it. In my experience (I was once a little girl and I have two daughters of my own), most girls do love their families and are sweet and friendly with each other, but so many YA books these days seem to overemphasize the cattiness and jealousy. I worry that this teaches children to expect this behavior from girls and I much prefer for my kids to read about healthy behaviors and interactions.
Besides the affectionate relationships with each other, the mountain folk also have a special understanding and tenderness for the mountain and the linder they mine. This is born to them, and Hale illustrates it beautifully. I also appreciate that, though the girls are in a “Princess Academy,” the idea of becoming a pampered princess (or even just a bride) is not portrayed as the goal for these girls. Instead, the value of education, useful skills, analytical thinking, and a love of home and community is emphasized.
Shannon Hale’s writing style is appealing. She uses figurative language to add depth to her setting, though the overuse of food-related similes eventually becomes a bit tiresome:
- Just the possibility was as enticing as the smell of honey cakes baking next door.
- The snow that crunched under her book spread over stone and hillock like spilled cream.
- Her victory soured like milk left standing.
- Her cheeks were ruddy like the sun side of an apple.
- The music was so beautiful that it entered her with a pleasant tang, like drinking ice-melt water on an empty stomach.
The audiobook was produced by Full Cast Audio and performed by a cast of 23 readers and enhanced with music and chanting by Cynthia Bishop. My kids and I thought it was a terrific production. You can listen to samples (including the music) at the Full Cast Audio website. The day after we finished listening to Princess Academy, my 12-year old football player brought the print version home from his school library and started reading it. I haven’t seen him enjoy a book so much since the last Percy Jackson book came out. When I asked him why he liked Princess Academy, he said, “the descriptions of the characters and the setting were really good, there was lots of action, and it made me laugh sometimes.”