It's always difficult finding books for my oldest daughter, Beanie. A first-grader age and maturity-wise, she has a much higher reading level, and gets bored quickly with first-grade level books, yet she isn't ready for some of the content in high-level books. When she asked for Shannon Hales' Princess Academy at a school book fair, I immediately agreed. A 2006 Newberry Honor Book, it seemed ideal for her.
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::: On the Mountain :::
Princess Academy centers on Miri, a girl who lives on Mount Eskel, far from any "civilization." The mountain people make their livelihood harvesting linder, a building material, which they then trade for necessities. It's a hard life, but one that all the mountain people participate in, and it hurts Miri that her father won't let her work in the quarry with everyone else. She believes it's because of her tiny stature, but still, she feels like she is a burden to the mountain people. Even her sister Marda and a friend with a lame arm work in the quarry.
Most of the mountain people have never left the mountain to see the rest of the country in which they live, with the exception of Britta, who is a Danlander who came to live with distant relatives after she was orphaned. The mountain people's only exposure to the rest of Danland is when the traders come to barter, so when a messenger comes from the royal family to tell them that a prophecy has determined that the Crown Prince's wife will come from Mount Eskel, the people of Mount Eskel are shocked.
All girls of eligible age are taken to the Princess Academy, a school set up by the king to train mountain girls to become princesses, since one of them will marry the prince according to the prophecy. All the girls, including Miri and Britta, are sent to the academy to be tutored by the ultra-strict Olana, where they learn to read, how to converse with royalty, all about Danland history, and important things like commerce, where Miri learns that the linder her people have been harvesting is worth far more than they've been getting for it.
Not only are the girls competing to be academy princess, who will win a beautiful gown and the notice of the prince, but Miri also has to save the girls at the school from danger, and decide what her true value is.
::: The Message :::
Miri is a very determined young woman, first to prove to her father that she can work in the quarry with the rest of the people of Mount Eskel, and then to learn as much as she can at the princess academy. She is torn, however, between wanting to be the best student, gain the notice of the prince, and provide for her family so that they can have a better life, and returning to the mountain where her heart lies. She's also torn between the prince she's never met and a boy back home she's been best friends with since they were small children.
Miri's talents lie in figuring things out, from bartering with the traders for her family to figuring out the magical quarry-speak, a type of telepathy used by the quarry workers to issue warnings to each other when they are working. Her feelings that she is a burden to the people of Mount Eskel only makes things worse when she gets to the academy, where she ends up set apart from the other girls. The lesson of the story is that by staying true to herself, she is able to help others, and she finally learns the real reason she isn't allowed to work in the quarry, and how she really is viewed by others.
Princess Academy well deserves the Newberry Honor it received; far from a pink and sparkly princess book, it teaches readers that being a princess isn't everything, but being true to your heart is.