Recently I received a comment about the presence of several girl-centered books on the blog. "Thought these books were for your boy," the commenter stated. "Does he like it when you read books about girls?"
Well, yes. Because, you see, we read them to him.
I think we do our kids a real disservice with our preconceived notions about what boys will like or what girls will be into. We're big believers in following our kiddo's lead, but also in giving him a diverse crop of things to read and do. So we include books that feature girls as often as boys, just like we read about an equal number of books featuring characters of various ethnicities. And I hope that as he grows older, this will make him open to the idea of cracking open a book with a female protagonist.
Having said that, I know it's probably an uphill battle to expect that most boys will want to read a book titled Princess Academy, no matter how awesome it is (and with Shannon Hale as the author, you know it's going to be a good one). Heck, I'll admit that even I had reservations about this because let's be honest, that title is kind of awful. Still, it's a Newbery Honor title, and I'm on a mission to read as many Newbery medalists as I can, so I overcame my feelings about the name of this book and dove right in.
Princess Academy tells the story of Miri Larendaughter, who lives with her father and sister in the village of Mount Eskel. The villagers have been quarriers for generations, extracting linder from the mountain and trading it to lowland traders, sustaining themselves through the harsh winter months. The people of Mount Eskel are used to the idea that the lowlanders look down on them, and keep to themselves as much as possible. But then comes the proclamation that the prince's bride is to be one of the girls of Mount Eskel, and that in preparation, all girls of the right age must enter the Princess Academy to be established on the mountainous slopes.
Miri's torn about whether or not she wants to be chosen, and this struggle forms much of the narrative drive of the book. But there are other factors as well -- competition among the girls, worries about home, the completely horrible tutor Olana, and Miri's feelings for her childhood friend Peder -- that make up the complexity that is Miri's life at the Academy. I love that through it all, Miri relies on her own cleverness and the help of her friends to solve her problems. When bandits take the girls hostage, for example, it is Miri's knowledge of the villagers' "quarry speech" that allows her to summon help and save everyone from a terrible situation.
I'm so glad I read this, and it's one I'm really looking forward to reading with Sprout when he's old enough. The story is paced very well -- there's plenty of suspense to keep readers turning pages, but enough heart and soul with the characters to make them easily relatable. Add in a touch of fantasy, and just a hint of fairy-tale essence, and you have the makings of a solidly classic title that will appeal to readers of all types. Plus you can't help but admire the mighty-girl message here. Miri's anything but a damsel in distress, and really none of the other girls are helpless maidens either. The idea of a fairy tale where the heroine saves the day isn't new, but it's beautifully done in this novel. Easy to see why the Newbery committee couldn't pass it by!
Grab this one for your middle-grade girl or boy -- because once they get past the titles, readers can't help but cheer for Miri and thrill at the adventures this fantasy has to offer.
Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, published by Bloomsbury Children's Books
First lines: "Miri woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house's stone walls. Though still half-asleep, she was aware of the late autumn chill hovering just outside her blanket, and she wanted to curl up tighter and sleep like a bear through frost and night and day."