Bloomsbury, 2005 314 pgs
Newbery Honor Book 2006
Miri has a simple and pleasant life with her father and sister in their little mountain village. The sole industry of the village is mining for linder, a very precarious business that only mountain folk can safely obtain. A surprise royal announcement reveals that the Prince's bride will be selected from their region of the land. Since the mountain girls are rough and uneducated, a princess academy is established three hours from home and the girls are sent to reside there for a year. At the academy they are greeted by their strict and often cruel teacher and the princess training begins. Snowed in for the winter, the girls gradually learn how to read and write, as well as the basics of mathematics, commerce, history, and social graces. Through her studies Miri discovers that the linder her people mine is a valuable and rare commodity and they could improve their economy with more intentional trading. Miri also discovers a secret way of communicating, using a method the miners have always practiced for safety, and improving on it. By her wits, ingenuity, and kindness to others, Miri sours to the top of her class. She wins the opportunity to meet the prince and possibly be selected. But does she really want to be a princess, especially when her heart belongs to a young man of the village, who suddenly becomes more than just a friend?
How did I miss Princess Academy the year it received a Newbery honor? I had read The Goose Girl, also by Shannon Hale, and assumed it was more of the same. It took my twelve-year-old daughter, Shannon Hale's biggest fan, to be aghast at my neglect to finally pick it up. I was not disappointed. What a great book! Shannon Hale manages to write fairy tales with strong and interesting female protagonists that are slightly gritty. Princess Academy contains a slight magical element (telepathic communication shared only by the mountain people), but the magic feels realistic and believable. The setting is cryptic. It feels like fairy tale times, but exact place and time are vague. The plot is brisk with twists, turns, and surprises along the way. The ending was satisfactory with a princess chosen (won't tell who: spoilers!) and all loose threads sewn up. There is a 2012 sequel, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone, that my daughter promises is just as good, if not better than the first. Even though the book is not "super-girlie", because of the title boys probably won't pick it up. Most girls, however, will love it, even if they aren't that into fantasy or fairy tales. Hopefully Shannon Hale will continue to spin her fantastical yarns for many years to come.