Shannon Hale has to be one of my favorite YA authors. And yes, I realize that her books are shelved in Children’s in most libraries, but Princess Academy is more appropriate for younger children than much of her work. Please be careful with any of the books of Bayern: Goose Girl, Enna Burning, River Secrets or Forest Born. They have much more mature themes and violence. I will review them here eventually, as I love them dearly, but it’s worth a warning that they are not things I would give to third graders.
In re-reading Princess Academy, I was struck by how much I really do like it and what a good job Hale does of drawing you into the fantasy world she’s created. The first time I read it I was annoyed by the ending and it colored my love for the book. Here’s the thing; Hale goes through a lot of trouble to explain the social classes of the fantasy world she’s created. The isolation of Mount Eskel (the main setting) from the rest of the kingdom, and its status as a territory have made its residents not only of the lowest possible social class, but prey to exploitation by the more knowledgeable traders. There is a good deal of shock when the oracle predicts the prince’s bride will be from Mount Eskel, in part because no one there is considered worthy of being a princess.
The reason the ending bothers me so much (and yes, consider yourself warned that I’m giving you a major spoiler) is that the prince does not end up choosing a girl from Mount Eskel. Believe me, you are not rooting for him to pick the main character, Miri, yet Hale’s choice to make his bride a fellow noble really struck an off note with me. It was as though Hale abandoned her crusade for equality among the classes and decided she’d rather take a stand against arranged marriages. I think it would have been possible to create a character who had an existing relationship with the prince who was not herself a noble and achieve both a statement on social class and one on arranged marriages, but that simply didn’t happen.
On re-reading I was not nearly so bothered by this (and it’s really unlikely that age-appropriate readers will notice or care). This time I was captivated by the world Hale created and the bravery and ingenuity shown by her characters.
I received some complaints from students that the beginning is boring. There is an initial part in which Hale needs to establish her fantasy world where the story does not have much action. Most students who made it past this point did enjoy the story greatly; the action picks up once the girls go to the academy.
The vocabulary can be difficult for younger readers because some of it is very specific like “quarry,” and some is made up. Making up words is quite common in fantasy and science fiction books, but it means that children must be strong enough readers that they can determine the meaning of words solely from the context. I’ve only had a few third graders who were able to read this, I would go with fourth grade and up. Miri herself is 14, but honestly she feels a bit younger; they are always speaking of how small she is. There’s also a bit of commerce and diplomacy that may be difficult to understand for younger readers, but those sections aren’t vital to appreciating the rest of the story.
Great for: People who root for the underdog. Miri time and again doubts that she is capable and yet proves she is smart, strong and a good friend.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – Miri likes Peder. At one point she has an impulse to kiss his cheek, but really the most that happens between them is some hand-holding. A girl from the Princess Academy becomes betrothed to the prince.
Profanity – None
Death, Violence and Gore – Miri’s mother died a week after her birth. The book relates the story of her working in the quarry, having a bad fall, delivering Miri early and subsequently dying. Girls are punished by hand lashings at the Princess Academy. Miri’s sister is injured in a quarry accident. One of the bandits dies.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – None
Frightening or Intense Things – Girls are locked in a closet for misbehaving at the Academy. When Miri is in the closet, there is a rat in there with her and she is worried and remembers hearing of a baby who died from a rat bite. At one point the bandits attack and hold the girls for ransom. This whole section is very suspenseful as the girls try to escape and the bandits threaten their lives, including threatening to slit their throats. The villagers arrive to save the girls and there is a confrontation. There are some injuries during the bandit attack and during the rescue.