When I heard Shannon Hale was coming to Lemuria, I hastily unearthed my copy of her Newbery Honor winning Princess Academy from my To Be Read stack…which is always actually several stacks, consisting of hundreds of unread books. Princess Academy had been on my radar for some time, and the book had been patiently waiting for me for well over a year.
My great passion in life is children’s books; however, I’m difficult to please. Even the Newbery seal is no longer a guarantee for me. Though Newbery books are almost always well written, in years of late several of the Medal and Honor winners have seemed to be lovely books written by adults who love kids’ books to impress other adults who love kids’ books–rather than for the kids themselves. My feelings on this are ambiguous and for another blog. However, I admit I always hope when I crack open an unread prize winner that it will be well written enough, exciting enough, interesting enough, the characters real enough, to please adult and child alike. Princess Academy is just such a book.
School Library Journal’s starred review sums it up nicely: “This is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale…Instead, Hale weaves an intricate, multilayered story about families, relationships, education, and the place we call home.”
Princess Academy is about all of that and more. Hale’s fantasy world subtly challenges our own assumptions about the role girls are expected by society to fulfill. In her fairytale land, as in our own, daughters take their father’s name–but sons take their mother’s. This seemingly insignificant detail is a compass for the close reader, as we are drawn deeper into main character Miri’s experience at Princess Academy–a school expressly established to educate and finish the girls of her simple mountain village so that the kingdom’s prince might choose one of them as a bride.
The competition and cattiness among the young female students reads at times like a literary version of The Bachelor for the middle grade set. (It should be said that I am fascinated by the psychology and sociology of such reality shows, and don’t in any way mean that in a minimizing way.) Hale takes a timely look at the issues of female relationships, how they are affected by the pressure to compete over boys (and everything else), and the deeply rooted prejudices we all hold towards one another. (Read Hale’s thoughts on ‘girl books’ vs. ‘boy books’ in this article in the Salt Lake Tribune.)
The tension between the defensive mountain girls and the snooty “lowlanders” of their kingdom is noteworthy. There are no cardboard good guys and bad guys here–both lowlanders and mountain folk are guilty of making assumptions and seeing what they think they’ll see when they look at one another.
Princess Academy is rich with thought provoking fodder for discussion, without ever being preachy or heavy handed; it would be a fantastic pick for a Mother-Daughter book club. There’s still time to read it before Wednesday, August 29 at 4 PM, when Shannon Hale will be talking with us and signing copies of Palace of Stone, the brand new sequel to Princess Academy. Bring your kids (the boys too!) and join us for what is sure to be a stimulating evening with the brilliant and talented Ms. Hale.