Princess Academy: Deserves its Newbery Honor

book review shannon hale princess academy newbery honorPrincess Academy by Shannon Hale

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.”

Princess Academy — (2005) Ages 9-12. Newbery Honor. Available for download at Audible.com Publisher: High on the side of rocky Mount Eskel, far from the valleys where gardens are green and lush, where lowlanders make laws, Miri’s family has lived forever, pounding a living from the stone of the mountain itself. For as long as she can remember, Miri has dreamed of working alongside the other villagers in the quarries of her beloved mountainside. But Miri has never been allowed to work there, perhaps, she thinks, because she is so small. Then word comes from the valley that the king’s priests have divined Mount Eskel to be the home of the prince’s bride-to-be — the next princess. The prince himself will travel to the village to choose her, but first all eligible girls must attend a makeshift mountain academy to prepare themselves for royal lowlander life. At the school, Miri soon finds herself confronted by bitter competition among the girls and her own conflicting desires to be chosen by the prince. Yet when danger comes to the academy and threatens all their lives, it is Miri, named for a tiny mountain flower, who must find a way to save her classmates — and the one chance to leave the mountain each of them is determined to secure as her own. From acclaimed author Shannon Hale comes the Newbery Honor-winning novel about would-be princesses and one small but determined girl’s destiny.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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3 comments

  1. This sounds really good, Kat. I’m especially impressed that the skills taught in the school are ones that would actually be useful to the one who becomes the princess — and to all the other girls too. Lots of books would have the school just teach girls how to be pretty, or in some of the books I’ve read recently, to fight each other. LOL.

  2. I read this book a few years ago, on a whim, and was surprised at just how much I ended up enjoying it. It may be a little fluffy, not the sort of thing I’d read if I’m in the mood for something rich and deep, but for what it’s intentions are, it’s a good book that’s worth the read for younger readers and fans of books for that age group.

  3. We were talking about YA fiction at my writers’ group today, and I’m going to reccomend this to group member Margaret if she hasn’t already read it. It sounds charming and original.

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