Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 18, 2010

Don’t let its title fool you

Princess Academy, Shannon Hale (2005), Bloomsbury, 314 pp.

We’re all familiar with stories of people suddenly dropped into fame–if they don’t have steely nerves, backbone and determination, they generally end up in rehab or jail. So, what if you could go to a special school to learn how to deal with fame? –with 20 others all learning the same lessons, but you all know that only one of you can be chosen. Who will end up on top? whose ugly inner self will be revealed during the fierce competition? who will win the equivalent of Miss Congeniality?

That’s the premise of this book, but with a twist, and it’s the twist that makes it Newbery worthy. It all takes place in a mountainous kingdom, in a village of stone cutters and goats, the village where the kingdom’s astrologers have predicted the prince’s wife will be found.

The stone cutters’ way of communicating provides the only fantastical element here; everything else is recognizable–the chill of an early morning, waking in a room shared with goats and other family members, walking snowy paths or watching the goat herd from a grassy hillside, a teen’s desire for change competing with her loyalty to the familiar.

Quick plot summary: Mother-less Miri wants to help in the quarry, but her father refuses. She’s among the 20 girls of her village who qualify to attend the Princess Academy in an abandoned home a few miles down the road. They’re snowed in over the winter, and the friendship ley lines shift repeatedly as the girls learn to work with each other and a difficult teacher.

I loved how Hale shows us Miri’s closeness with nature, through which she discovers how to use the quarry “speech” to help her classmates and her village. In the end, this book is about learning where you want to be, and Miri’s path to this understanding is fascinating.

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