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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Princess Academy

Hale, Shannon. 2005. PRINCESS ACADEMY. Waterville, Maine: Thorndike Press. ISBN: 0786287330.

Each day, all the people in Miri’s little mountain village go to the quarry to cut Linder rock, except Miri. She has not grown as large as the others, and is not allowed to set foot in the quarry. Instead, she does house chores, minds the goats, and bargains with the traders who trade food for Linder rock until winter snows close the passes. Miri believes she is a burden by her community because she does not help break the rock that is their livelihood. It is a hard life, but the traditions and friendships in the community keep them going forward, despite what the lowlanders might think of them.

As with most fairytales, author Shannon Hale’s characters are surprised by a sudden challenge, and must learn to work together to overcome it. Their community is selected for the Princess Academy, from which the Prince will choose his bride. All girls between the ages of fourteen and eighteen must live at the school and attend classes for a year, with little access to their families and old traditions. This is where the magic happens. Miri learns to participate in the psychic memory-language of the quarry, and by doing this, and applying her lessons in diplomacy, commerce, and finding common ground, she is able to help her community overcome not only the challenges of the Princess Academy, but also the meager rewards for their hard work in the quarry, and her fear that she is not accepted by the people she loves the most. Of course, it wouldn’t be a fairytale without the opportunity for our heroine to test herself against true evil one final time.

Hale manages to develop the characters of many girls in the Princess Academy group, while still using names appropriate to the setting of her story, and challenges/responses that are realistic for each character. The backdrop of this story about a group of young girls finding their places in the world allows for additional layers of conflict, and additional parallels to the realities of discrimination, bigotry, and bad assumptions. Her ability to maintain several diverse characters throughout the story again allows the reader to connect more closely with both the girls and the messages of tolerance, fortitude, and personal responsibility that permeate the story, without becoming didactic or repetitive. The fantasy about a language that only you and your friends can understand is a common one, and Miri’s use of it to save her friends from the bandits is a predictable resolution.

Publishers Weekly: “Through education—and the realization that she has the common mountain power to communicate wordlessly via magical "quarry-speech"—Miri and the girls eventually gain confidence and knowledge that helps transform their village. Unfortunately, Hale's lighthearted premise and underlying romantic plot bog down in overlong passages about commerce and class, a surprise hostage situation and the specifics of "quarry-speech."
Starred Review, School Library Journal: “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. Instead, Hale weaves an intricate, multilayered story about families, relationships, education, and the place we call home.”
Booklist: “Hale nicely interweaves feminist sensibilities in this quest-for-a-prince-charming, historical-fantasy tale. Strong suspense and plot drive the action as the girls outwit would-be kidnappers and explore the boundaries of leadership, competition, and friendship.”

==> In a group, discuss the parallels between Miri’s conflict with the girls and common middle and high school experiences today. Explore the possibility that her solutions to these problems might work for the group, too.
==> Use this modern fairytale as a jumping off point to research perspective and bigotry in the United States regarding Hillbillies and City folks. How might commerce and unfamiliar traditions be involved?

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