The story is told from a third-person perspective (check out the "Narrator Point of View" section for more on this), but it follows our scrappy protagonist Miri quite closely. Because of this, it's no wonder that some of Miri's spunk rubs off and infuses itself into the tone of the book.
When you read about Miri and her adventures, you see no wallowing or self-pity—instead it's all about sheer resourcefulness and making the best out of a situation. For example, when Tutor Olana tells Miri that she's being punished and will receive no more outside privileges, the book doesn't treat it as a tragedy:
"Yes, Tutor Olana." In truth, Miri did not mind. Between quarry-speech and Commerce, she had plenty to think about. (8.86)
The book is all about bouncing back and problem-solving—and that's not a bad attitude to take.
Princess Academy is definitely the kind of story that is meant for younger audiences, especially because its protagonist is a scrappy fourteen-year-old girl. The story may presumably be about marriage, but most of the time we don't even see the prince—instead we see a bunch of young girls embracing knowledge and learning for the first time ever, and that's an awesome thing. The story is all about kids expanding their minds—just like you will when you read this book.
As the main character, Miri definitely undergoes a transformation throughout the book. She starts off as a young girl who is frustrated by her size and the fact that she isn't allowed to go work in the quarries. As she goes through the academy and learns more about herself though, she comes to discover that her size doesn't matter and that she can still be a strong and contributing member of her community—just in a different way. She also discovers that she loves learning and doesn't want to be a quarry worker; she wants to devote her life to teaching others.
Since we're dealing with young teenagers, it's no wonder that any reference to romance is pretty awkward. Even though all of the girls are at the academy to win over Prince Steffan, they're all decidedly awkward when it comes to wooing and courtship; Britta—the only girl who has a history with Steffan—practically throws up whenever he's near. And Miri's relationship with Peder is filled with tension, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities. The two of them obviously like each other, but are afraid to show it until the very end.
Princess Academy is a pretty straightforward title for a book about a bunch of girls who have to go to an academy to become potential princesses. But even though their stated goal is to win the affection of the prince and become princess, the princess academy comes to represent so much more. The girls—especially Miri—aren't just learning their lessons so that they can marry some dude; no, they're learning for themselves, so that they can become more knowledgeable individuals who contribute more to their communities. Who needs a prince anyway?
The end of Princess Academy ends right where it starts—on Miri's beloved Mount Eskel:
She leaned over the little rock fence to pick fallen linder chips from among the plants and tossed them up the slope of scree. Among the gray scraps of rubble rock, the white and silver linder gleamed like jewels. From the cracks in the rocks all around, the miri flowers were already blooming. (25.164)
Mount Eskel is described as a breathtakingly beautiful place, the kind of place you'd never want to leave. This is especially poignant because Miri spends the entire book wrestling with whether or not she wants to leave Mount Eskel and reinvent herself in some other part of the kingdom. By the end though, she realizes that Mount Eskel is her beloved home, and that she can still find herself and her place in the world while remaining there.
The lowlanders may not think much of Mount Eskel, but it's a beautiful place with its own special culture. The mountain is a place where people are very in touch with nature and can speak to each other through working with the stone and growing up in the area. As Peder explains it:
When everything's going right, it feels like the songs we sing on holidays, the men talking one part, the women another. You know how harmony sounds? That's how working linder feels. It may seem silly, but I imagine that linder is always singing, and when I get my wedge in just the right crack and bring down my mallet just so, I feel like I'm singing back. (7.4)
Mount Eskel is a place where people are very in touch with nature; in fact, all the kids are able to run up and down treacherous mountain paths without falling because they know it so well. And it's not just a place where nature reigns supreme—it's also home to a village of people who very much value community. Besides being able to communicate through the mountain's linder rock, the people of Mount Eskel also have rich traditions that they share, like the spring holiday:
Frid's pa announced the ribbon dances with a strum of his three-stringed yipper, and Doter handed out the tattered red strips of cloth that were older than any grandparent. (11.9)
Through their traditions, they're able to pay homage to the mountain and share stories and legends with their neighbors and families. Mount Eskel isn't just some remote place off in the middle of nowhere; it's a mountain with a rich heritage that connects all the people who live on it.
The language in Princess Academy is pretty easy to follow and appropriate for readers who are just getting the hang of longer chapter books. The language is clear and simple, and the dialogue is informal—after all, we're following a bunch of young girls as they make their way through school for the first time.
Despite the easy-breeziness of the language though, there are some more complicated themes that require closer reading. The girls learn topics at school like Commerce and Diplomacy—and are then expected to put their skills into use. Those are some pretty tough subjects to learn, and as the reader we're expected to follow along and learn as well.
Keep up, class.
Because Princess Academy is set in a place with such a rich storytelling tradition, it makes sense that the writing style would mimic that of a well-worn local legend. This becomes especially apparent when the book goes into detail about Mount Eskel's culture, like when the girls come home for the spring holiday:
That afternoon, the sounds of song greeted them at the outskirts of the village. Dozens of voices carried the melody, and slapping drums and clapping hands thrummed the beat. The girls recognized the tune and rhythm of the empty barrel dance, the first dance of spring holiday. (11.1)
The writing style is clear and easy to read, but based off of the dialogue and the constant references to local lore and the connection that the villagers have, it's clear that it's a story set in a very specific place with a group of people who will be telling it for years to come.
The miri flower is this little mountain flower that somehow manages to grow even when there is not a lot of soil present. It blossoms in the crags of the mountain, fighting against all the odds. That's why Miri's mother decided to name her after the blossom:
"I don't want a daughter named after a stone," she had said, choosing instead to name her Miri after the flower that conquered rock and climbed to face the sun. (1.37)
The flower serves as a symbol for Miri, who is named after the blossom and also survives and thrives despite her delicate looks. Like the flower, Miri may be small and vulnerable-looking, but she's actually tough and can take care of herself. She's been able to stand up to big foes (like Tutor Olana and Dan the bandit), and even make a name for herself by making sure that the traders give the villagers a fair amount for their linder.
But the miri flower doesn't just represent the girl who was named after it—it's also a symbol for the spirit of Mount Eskel and all the villagers who live on it. Even though Mount Eskel may seem like a harsh, remote place to live, the villagers thrive and create their own beautiful community.
Ah, the power of words. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Miri finds utter magic in words once she's capable of reading:
Once words had been invisible to Miri, as unknown and uninteresting as the movements of a spider inside a rock wall. Now they appeared all around her, standing up, demanding notice—on the spines of books in the classroom, marking the barrels of food in the kitchen and storeroom, carved into a linder foundation stone… (5.1)
For Miri, reading isn't just something that she has to learn in order to become academy princess—it becomes a gateway to knowledge and learning. Through books, she's able to learn about places outside of Mount Eskel and to see what the world holds, and in this way, books provide a window into the endless possibilities that await Miri.
And one of these possibilities, of course, is becoming a teacher—which is exactly what Miri intends to do as our story ends. Now that she's able to read, Miri wants to empower other curious people to learn to do so as well, to help open the world up for more people who live in Mount Eskel. In this way, books also symbolize Miri's investment in community and her commitment to fairness. She believes education should be available to anyone who desires it, and is ready to make that her life's work.
Remember that painting of the house in Asland? The one that all the girls (including Miri) went totally gaga over when Tutor Olana announced that it would be given to the new princess's family? Well it turns out that the painting doesn't accurately represent the riches that await the girl who becomes princess—the promise of the house is actually a lie. But in the end it doesn't even matter, because Miri's family didn't actually want the big house; they were just as happy with having Miri home and receiving that beautiful painting as a gift.
Marda and Pa were back from the quarry early and sitting on the large stones beside Britta's garden. Miri gave them the painting, leaned her head against her pa's shoulder, and smiled as they cooed over the gift. (25.161)
In this way, the painting signifies those things that Miri thinks she wants, but finds out aren't real or right for her after all. When she goes to the academy, she thinks that she might want to be the princess so that she can provide these fancy things for her family; by the end, however, she discovers that her family just wants her home and that she doesn't want to marry the prince at all. Similarly, even though Miri has wanted to work in the quarries her whole life, by the end she knows that it's not the place for her.
The entirety of Princess Academy is told from a third-person point of view, meaning by an outside narrator. This narrator tells us things as they're happening to the girls of Mount Eskel as they go through the princess academy and fight it out for the title of academy princess.
However, this third-person narrator also follows one particular character very closely: Miri. Because of this, we only get to see into Miri's thoughts—everyone else's brain is off-limits. For example, we see how she is feeling when she is told that she must leave her family to go to the princess academy and how confused she is by her feelings for Peder. As we understand her thoughts, everything that unfolds is understood through the lens of Miri's experience.
All the girls of Mount Eskel—ages twelve to seventeen—are herded off to princess academy so that they can become polished young ladies worthy of the prince's affection. Miri, our scrappy heroine, is skeptical at first but soon uses her natural aptitude and competitiveness to match the older girls in their studies. According to their dour teacher, Tutor Olana, the girl who does best will be crowned academy princess and will get to dance with the prince first when he comes to make his selection. Is this starting to sound like a Bachelor knockoff to you too? Either way, the scene is set for learning and plenty of drama.
Things heat up as the prince is scheduled to arrive. Miri and some of the older girls are neck-in-neck for academy princess, although Miri wins out in the end. Britta—a lowlander who has come to live on Mount Eskel—becomes sick the night of the ball and can't go to meet the prince. When the rest of the girls finally meet the prince though, he doesn't seem that interested in getting to know any of them. Uh-oh. So how are they supposed to charm him into wanting to marry one of them again?
The next day, the prince leaves without choosing a bride and all of the girls are thrown into confusion. What's going on?
There's not much time to dwell on the prince though, because the real crisis happens the next day when the academy is stormed by a band of bandits. They're there to take the future princess for ransom and refuse to believe the girls when they say that the prince hasn't chosen one of them. Out of sheer desperation, Miri uses quarry-speech to reach out to Peder and tell him that they're in trouble—he gets the message and responds by bringing all the villagers up to the academy to fight the bandits. Phew.
The girls climb out a window and run toward their families, but some of them—like Miri—are caught and held hostage by the bandits. After a tense standoff, Miri is able to edge the leader of the bandits toward a cliff, where he missteps and falls to his death.
After the bandit incident, everyone heads back to the village for the winter. Miri decides that she wants to be a teacher and works with other villagers, teaching them how to read. Tutor Olana sets up the school there and the girls resume their lessons in preparation for the prince's return in the spring. Everything returns to normal, even though they're all anticipating the news of the prince's return… and then he finally comes, and the girls go back up to the academy to find out what will happen.
When the prince sees Britta, he immediately chooses her because she was a childhood friend of his and they're in love. She actually came up to Mount Eskel specifically to try to marry him, so it works out well for both of them. Miri isn't disappointed at all, and she goes back to the village excited to start her life as a teacher. She and Peder also finally admit their feelings to each other and hold hands as they enter the village, making their affection for each other official and public. As our story wraps, love is in the air and happiness abounds.
There aren't any recognizable shout-outs in Princess Academy because it's set in Danland, in a place and time that definitely don't exist in the real world. We could give a shout-out to The History of Danland or to some of Miri and Company's favorite quarry songs, but you wouldn't know about them anyway.