Shannon Hale's book, Princess Academy, may sound like it's just another Princess Diaries knock-off.
Two words: it's not.
Princess Academy takes place on Mount Eskel, a territory of Danland where the villagers harvest a precious stone called linder in the quarries. The main character is a spunky fourteen-year-old named Miri, who is small for her age and not allowed to work in the quarries with everyone else, much to her dismay. When it's announced that the new princess will be selected from Mount Eskel, all eligible girls—including Miri—are sent off to a remote academy and trained to become proper, ladylike potential princesses.
The book isn't just about bowing and curtsying demurely, though, and the message here is definitely more girl power than it is marry well. The girls attending the academy are interested in learning and getting out of Mount Eskel more than marrying the prince, and once Tutor Olana starts teaching them new subjects, their minds expand and they discover hidden talents. Miri finds herself enamored with books rather than becoming a princess, and even Katar—who desperately wants to be chosen—wants to live in the lowlands and see the world more than she wants to be married.
Princess Academy shouts from the rooftops that knowledge is power. With their newfound knowledge, the girls are able to make important changes. They're able to renegotiate with the traders for more supplies, create terms and conditions for their own education, and gain the respect of lowlanders and other adults. They also come to realize that their lives don't have to be limited to what they've always done; Miri, for her part, discovers that she's good at teaching and would like to make it her life's work.
This is a book about learning about yourself and your place in the world. Miri undergoes a personal journey and comes out of it realizing who and what is important in her life—and you can't buy that kind of knowledge with all the jewels in the kingdom.
So we're looking at a book about girls vying to become princesses in some nonexistent land. La-di-da. What could that possibly have to do with our lives in the modern world?
It turns out that Princess Academy has a lot to do with modern life, especially for readers who are still in school. First of all, despite the fact that the end goal is marriage to the prince, this book stresses the importance of education a lot more than it stresses the importance of marriage. The real journey for Miri and the other girls isn't about finding out who they're going to marry (although a little bit of romance is always a nice extra); it's about finding themselves and learning what they're capable of.
So even though school may seem boring and terrible at first, you—like Miri—can grow as you learn more about the world and about yourself. Miri starts off thinking that all she wants to do is work in the quarries, but after she's gone through some schooling, she discovers that she loves to teach people. So even though your precalculus class may be a huge drag, perhaps you'll learn something about what you want to do—or don't want to do—from it that will help you seek a career.
This book also touches on some feminist themes. Miri takes her education into her own hands and she thinks for herself, and even though Tutor Olana tells her that she must be charming and demure in front of the prince, she calls him out on his bad behavior and cold affect. She also stands up to Tutor Olana and the bandits later on, without letting her size or her gender hold her back.
In other words, we could all learn a thing or two from Miri.
All You'll Ever Need
For all you'll ever need to know about the Princess Academy books or author extraordinaire Shannon Hale, head over to her website.
Kirkus comes out and calls Princess Academy "unalloyed joy." That's quite high praise; looks like you'd better get reading.
In an interview with Shannon Hale, she claims that Miri is more like her than any other character she's ever written. She was the most trouble to write too… go figure.
Want to learn some more about the lady behind the literary magic? Check out this interview with Shannon Hale about her life and her writing.
If you'd rather listen to stories of princesses and faraway kingdoms while you lie in bed, you can just pick up Princess Academy on audiobook.
Keeping it Sassy
Miri looks pretty sassy on the cover of Princess Academy, doesn't she? Looks to us like there's a glimmer in her eye, and possible a trick or two up her sleeve.
More to Come
Looks like the second book, Princess Academy: Palace of Stone is set somewhere in Asland. That background looks pretty palatial to us.
Goats and Girls
This fan art image of Miri on Mount Eskel watching the goats is exactly as the book described it.