Princess Academy by Shannon Hale

  • Title: Princess Academy
  • Author: Shannon Hale
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury
  • Year Published: 2005
  • ISBN: 0756981808
  • List Price: $17.60
  • Page Count: 314
  • Age Range: 10-14
  • Genre: fantasy
  • Award(s): Newbery Honor book; ALA Notable Children’s Book; full list here.

Author information: Shannon Hale has written many books for young readers, most of them with female protagonists at the forefront. Her website includes her biography, contact information, writing history, and book recommendations as well as a links to information about all of her books. Her site also includes links to her blog, upcoming appearances, and tips about writing and links to games and stories that her fans may enjoy. Hale also has a blog post in which she discusses how many in the YA field are sick of certain tropes (love triangles, absent parents, complaining protagonists), but that these are used for a reason: they resonate with and represent a teenager population in a way that is true.

Reviews: School Library Journal and Kirkus both gave this title starred reviews, and Booklist also gave it a positive review, all of which can be found here. SLJ says, “each girl’s story is brought to a satisfying conclusion, but this is not a fluffy, predictable fairy tale, even though it has wonderful moments of humor”, and both other reviews also highlight the spunk and intelligence of the female characters and how those qualities help this book stray away from the traditional fairy tale genre.

Readers annotation: Miri has the chance to be a princess. But the question is: is that what she really wants?

Summary: Miri has always felt out of place in her village. While everybody else spends their days working in the quarry to produce enough linder to trade for supplies, she believes she is too small and weak to contribute, and she is deeply ashamed of this fact. Her life changes when dignitaries come to her rural mountain village with news that all young girls must participate in a Princess Academy and the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the graduates from the Academy. Miri does not like the way the girls are treated at the Academy and protests, getting herself and others into trouble, but she does become a top student and learns a lot that can help her village and gets her selected Academy Princess. When she finally meets the Prince, she isn’t impressed, and he leaves the Academy without choosing a bride, which means that all of the girls have to stay at the Academy for another season. During this time, bandits attack their school and Miri once again shows her courage and quick thinking by saving everyone, using the villagers’ ability to “quarry speak” to alert the village to the girls’ plight. Eventually it is revealed that one of the girls grew up with the Prince and is in love with him, and when he returns to find her among the Academy girls he happily chooses her as his bride. Miri finds contentment in remaining in her village and teaching others all she has learned, and is happy at the prospect of a romance with her childhood best friend.

Evaluation: I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The title, Princess Academy, gives the reader a preconceived idea about what this book will be about, and for me, the title immediately turned me off to the book. Once I began reading, however, I found much to applaud. Miri is a complicated protagonist who struggles with feelings of inadequacy and a desire to fit in, but she also displays strong positive traits, such as courage, loyalty, intelligence, and self-sacrifice. She struggles with the question of whether she actually wants to be a princess and what that would mean, and ultimately she decides that she would rather improve her community and stay with her friends and family than move away for the glamour and glory of being royalty. Many of the other female characters are portrayed with similar complexity; Katar, an older girl, makes it clear that her desire to be princess has nothing to do with wanting to marry a prince, but rather is because she wants to travel and see the world. Portraying girls at a Princess Academy who have more ambition than just getting married to a prince is gratifying and one of the highlights of the book. However, much emphasis is placed on the romantic aspect of the book and prevents the characters from reaching a fully developed point. Even though Miri does not want to be a princess and marry the prince, she still has a love interest and it’s clear that Peder is one of her major reasons for choosing to stay in the village. Similarly, Britta, the girl who grew up with the prince, turns into a shaky, sick mess when he comes to visit and can’t even force herself to get out of bed. We discover that her backstory is that she was sent to the mountain specifically to participate in the Princess Academy and be married off, and even though it’s clear she’s a pawn in her father’s power games, she’s more than content to go along with it so that she can marry her prince. Also, the entire idea of a Princess Academy, from which a prince gets to select his bride from any one of two dozen willing girls, may rub some readers the wrong way, especially since the Academy ends up working exactly as intended and the prince does choose his bride this way. Overall, this novel does a good job of portraying strong female characters within the confines of a male dominated society in which they have no true agency, but Hale had the opportunity to do more to make this novel more empowering for girls and show that falling in love and getting married isn’t the only path a girl can take. This book was fun and stronger than I expected, but could have done more with its premise.

Rating and appeal factors:

  • Quality: 3/5 This book is entertaining and has some complex female characters, but while it bends the expectations of the traditional princess genre, it never breaks them. The pacing of the novel and the obstacles and perils Miri and her friends face keep the reader engaged until the final page.
  • Popularity3/5  The title is the major deterrent of this book. Very few boys will even consider reading something with “princess” in the title, and some girls may balk at the prospect as well. Those who do read it will identify with Miri’s insecurities and will root for her success, and they will enjoy reading about her relationships with the other characters as well as her courage dealing with difficult situations.
  • Appeal factors: princesses, strong female protagonists, magical elements, romance.

Read-alikes: 

  1. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine is a natural recommendation for readers who enjoyed a princess story with a little more substance and a stronger than usual female character. Like Miri, Ella takes control of her own fate and displays traits of ambition, intelligence, and courage.

Book talk ideas: I think the best way to book talk this book is to focus on how it differs from traditional princess stories. Ask the potential readers: what if you were forced against your will to train to be a princess, even if you weren’t sure you even wanted to marry a prince? What if you were locked in a closet with rats if you disobeyed, and soldiers guarded the gates so you couldn’t return home and see your families? This is what Miri faces when she’s told a prince will be coming to her rural mountain village to select his bride from the eligible girls of the town. Miri must use her quick thinking and courage to protect herself and her friends from the obstacles they face at the Princess Academy, and she has to decide what it is that she really wants.

Discussion questions/ideas:

  1. Miri says the most precious thing she owns is the week after she was born when her mother held her. Why do you think this is?
  2. All of the girls at the Academy have their own reasons for wanting to marry the prince. What are some of these reasons? What are some other ways they can achieve these goals?
  3. What do you think happens after the novel ends? Choose a character and write another chapter about what this character does once the book is over.

Reason for reading: This book was recommended to me by one of my co-workers, who is also getting her MLIS and has taken a class in which she had to read quite a few Newbery books. She said that this book was one of her most surprising reads because, due to the title, she didn’t expect to get much out of it or enjoy it very much. Based on her suggestion, I decided to check it out. When I was leaving the library with the book, another librarian saw I was carrying it and mentioned that she had read it and was surprised at how much she liked it. I had seen this book on lists of award winners but never even considered reading a summary of it because of the title, and it seems that I’m not alone in being put off by it, but I do agree that the book itself is much better than the title would imply.

Additional relevant information: This book would be an ideal candidate for a Blind Date with a Book/Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover display. The cover (and, thankfully, the title) could be covered with a brown paper bag that has words and phrases about the book written on it. I think that someone would be more likely to pick up a paper bagged book that said things like “bandit attacks”, “there’s magic in the rocks”, and “spunky protagonist” than a book called Princess Academy, but then again, it’s impossible to deny that some girls just really love reading about princesses.

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