Princess Academy Review

Princess Academy
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"So what won the Newbery this year?"
"Criss Cross by Lynn Rae Perkins".
"Uh-huh. Is it any good?"
"Yep. It's nice".
"So what else got awards?"
"Well, there was something called Whittington by Alan Armstrong, Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, and of course The Princess Academy..."
"The PRINCESS Academy? Oh, ick, yuck, puke!"
" Shannon Hale. You've read it?"
", not exactly. But how good could anything called The Princess Academy be?"
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a rough equivalent of several conversations I've had with various people in regards to Shannon Hale's latest little nugget of gold. Say the words "Princess Academy" to the well-read and instantly their faces scrunch up and either the word "ew" or the word "ugh" emits from their lips. Ask them if they've read the book themselves and you'll undoubtedly get a quick shake of the head. It isn't the actual book they don't like. It's the title. I imagine there must have been some long conversations over at Bloomsbury Children's Books when this title was proposed. On the one hand, if you put the word "Princess" in a title you can link it the oh-so profitable "Princess Diaries", Disney "Princess" line, and even the "Royal Diaries" line of books. On the other hand, you're going to lose numerous parents, educators, librarians, masculine readers, and other members of society who take one look at the title and brush it off. I gave the book a long hard look before I plunged into it. This I admit freely. And while I wouldn't go handing it silver medals just for existing, it's certainly an intelligent and well-written little story that's bound to be adored by fans of Hale's previous "The Goose Girl", not to mention Gail Carson Levine's, "Ella Enchanted".
It is a well-known fact that Mira is useless. That is to say, it's well-known to Mira. Every day she wants to go off and work in the quarry with all the other village girls so that she can contribute something to her little mountain village. And every day her father refuses to let her set even one toe near the quarry lines. Short for her age with little to do but speak to her sister Mara and her old childhood friend Peder, fourteen-year-old Mira is mired in her own shame when who should appear in the village but a representative from the king himself. It seems that the prince is in need of a bride. Sounds simple. Unfortunately the royal priests have declared that the woman chosen will have to be from Mira's tiny mining village. Which means, of course, that an academy must be set up for the ladies ASAP. Before any of the girls know it, they've been whisked off to study under the harsh tutelage of one Olana Mansdaughter. Far from her home and her previous assumptions, Mira thrives in an atmosphere of entirely new knowledge. Yet as she grows more self-aware, it becomes perfectly clear to all of the girls that only one of them will earn the prince's favor. And Mira does not entirely want it to fall onto her.
I just read the bookflap of my copy to figure out whether or not the bookflap writer (oh most unrewarding of jobs) had a better grasp on showing you some of the book's subtleties. No such luck. Rereading my own summary, the book sounds kind of cutesy. I despise the term "girl power" to the marrow of my bones, but this is certainly a tale of empowerment, no question. And telepathy. Empowerment and telepathy. We're in fairy tale country here, but aside from the occasional I-can-speak-to-you-through-the-rocks moment, the story is straightforward and sensible. Hale keeps her characters and emotions on a tight reign, never giving away too much or allowing too little. Attentive readers will probably guess at the prince's choice long before Mira does, but for others it will come as a pleasant and well-crafted little surprise. As a heroine, Mira herself undergoes the necessary growth and changes required of her. At the same time, she has a sense of humor. The book doesn't go in for many laugh out loud moments, but at least we're not watching a humorless EARNEST hero in the making.
I'm just waiting for the review of this book that decries it to be a Communist screed (which, obviously, it isn't but reviewers love making that accusation). You see, the girls often work as a whole to beat their enemies when they can't do it singly. They form a kind of insipient princess union so that their professor will lay off the harsh punishments and give them their basic human rights. It works like gangbusters (due in no little way to some fancy negotiating) and is a lovely little lesson in sticking together against a common enemy. The book also shows how a village that is seemingly doing well for itself can still benefit from a good education. In some ways, "The Princess Academy" is so practical in its system of checks and balances that you forget that the places mentioned in this tale don't actually exist. Hale excels at selling you an entirely new reality.
Chalk this book up to a nice little surprise. If you were to grab me by my lapels and demand whether this book should have gotten a Newbery Honor or "Each Little Bird That Sings", I would of course indicate the latter. But since "Little Bird" did NOT win and "Princess Academy" did, don't go scoffing at this book sight unseen. Bad titles aside, Hale has conjured up a nice little story and a worthy addition to any and all library systems.

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