Friday, August 1, 2008

Princess Academy

Title: Princess Academy

Series: Stand alone

Author: Shannon Hale

Genre: Mid-grade (8-12) Fairy-tale

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Princess Academy:

The east says it’s dawn
My mouth speaks a yawn
My bed clings to me and begs me to stay
I hear a work song
Say winter is long
I peel myself up and then make away

Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house’s stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day.

Then she remembered the traders, kicked off her blanket, and sat up. Her father believed today was the day their wagons would squeeze up the mountain pass and rumble into the village. This time of year, all the villagers felt the rush for the last trading of the season, to hurry and square off a few more linder blocks and make that much more to trade, that much more to eat during the snow-locked months. Miri longed to help.

Wincing at the rustle of her pea-shuck mattress, Miri stood and stepped carefully over her pa and older sister, Marda, asleep on their pallets. For a week she had harbored an anxious hope to run to the quarry today and be already at work when her pa arrived. Perhaps then he might not send her away.

Unschooled mountain girls are forced to attend an academy to prepare one of them to be a princess.

The Writing: What shall I say? Princess Academy has received a coveted Newberry Honor (for being a runner-up for the Newberry Medal, awarded for outstanding excellence in children’s literature) and has received it for good reason.

The writing is clean (no excess verbiage!) and vivid, with enough details to bring the story to life without long, overbearing descriptions. The characters are varied, likeable, and act with all the conflicting emotions and desires you’d expect in a real person. The plot is engaging and has steady tension, culminating in a satisfying climax and resolution.

As I said—everything you’d expect from a Newberry Honor winner.

The Story: As this is a secular book, content is where I expected Princess Academy to rub against my grain. But though there are a few things to note, the story is simply a delightful read about the importance of family and friendship, overcoming competitive jealousy, and finding your place in the world—which might not quite be where you think you want it to be.

As for the issues to note:

  • Quarry-speech: This is the major “fantasy” element in the story. The protagonist uses a special type of stone that threads through the mountain to trigger memories in other characters so she can convey specific thoughts to them. It could be construed as some kind of magic or animism. However, I found it more like telepathy, frequently found in both sci-fi and fantasy, except here an external object is needed to make the telepathy work. The quarry-speech is also more limited than telepathy; ideas cannot be planted—only shared memories triggered—and another’s mind cannot be read.
  • The mention of a creator-god, and pagan priests who “divine” from where the next princess will come: There are only a couple passing references to these, used mainly to give legitimacy to the plot.
  • Cruelty of a teacher: This includes punishment by withholding meals or a trip to see family, isolation in a dark closet (where a rat resides), and whipping across the palms. These punishments aren’t overdone, with only the minimum used to flesh out characters and add motivation for the protagonist.
  • Cheating on a test: At one point, the protagonist uses quarry-speech to remind other students of the answers for a major test. On one hand, cheating isn’t right. Yet on the other, this scene demonstrates how the willingness to help a competitor to succeed—even if detrimental to self—can break down barriers, and provides a crucial open hand of reconciliation to an antagonist.
The Summary: Princess Academy is well-written, with many good themes through it and nothing more dangerous than the stuff found in classic fairy tales like "Cinderella." I found it a fun book to read, with some surprising twists for a fairy-tale story. There are a few content concerns, but they should not be a problem for most readers.

Ratings: 5.0 (writing), 2.0 (content), and 3.8 out of 5 stars (overall)

Ready to read some great writing? Order Princess Academy here.

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