Unconditional Recommendation: Through education and friendship a young girl learns where she belongs in her mountain community.
Award: 2006 Newbery Honor
I love this book. I loved it as a young reader and I love it still. It is eloquently told—simple enough for a young reader and complex enough to inspire thought, imagination, and keep even an older reader engaged. The telling, the course of the story, and the dear community of characters make this a beautiful book. It contains all the right ingredients to delight and inspire: themes of community, family, and friendship, and romance from friendship; it explores bravery, belonging, and the power of books.
Fourteen-year-old Miri lives on Mount Eskel where her village mines the precious linder stone from the mountain to sell to the lowland traders. Miri never been allowed to work in the quarry like all the other villagers and she believes it’s because she is so small. Then, the lowland priests divine that Mount Eskel is the location of the prince’s bride so a princess academy is set up and all the teenage girls are forced to attend for a year to learn about being a princess. At the end of the year the prince will come and select his bride from the group of girls. Miri faces the bitter competition with the other girls, the condescension of their tutor, unexpected danger and through it all seeks to develop friendships and a place to belong on her beloved mountain. Through twists and turns, the princess academy will teach her about much more than how to just be a princess.
Shannon Hale does a fantastic job of making a believable mountain village community. For generations the people of Mount Eskel have made their living from mining stone from the mountain. The quarry workers even use a special, silent way of communication when they work called quarry speech. Miri has always wanted to learn quarry speech and feel like she belongs but instead she feels separated from her community because she isn’t allowed by her Pa to contribute like everyone else. She mistakenly believes the villagers think she isn’t capable or useful because of her small size. She believes they look down on her because she doesn’t work in the quarry. Throughout the story, Miri learns the truth of why her Pa wouldn’t allow her in the quarry, how valuable she is in the community, and that she truly belongs. This book is exceptional in its sure and quiet way of portraying Miri in her community and all the relationships that go with it.
I really enjoyed all of Miri’s relationships in this book. For example, another young girl named Britta, a lowlander who lost her family and had to move in with distant relatives on the mountain, has not made any friends and at first Miri thinks it’s because she is haughty. When they are at the academy together, Miri learns that Britta is not the horrible lowlander like Miri assumed and instead is kind and very lonely for a friend. They become good friends while at the academy and Miri even invites Britta to spend time with her own family since her relatives don’t seem to like her much. I love that the friendship is built through learning to understand each other and being willing to step out and be open with another person. It reinforces the idea that you never really know the content of someone’s character by the exterior. I could go on and on about several different kinds of relationships Miri develops throughout the story but I’ll just say that each friendship is well done—honest in the failings we have with our friends and inspiring in the goodness we find in developing old and new friendships.
There is a little romance in the book that is not central to the story, but rather one of the many relationships we see Miri engage in. It is a sweet little love story that is rooted in a childhood friendship that grows into a shy love, cautious yet full of hope. I found it to be very heart-warming and sweet.
It’s the layers of conflicts that keep the plot engaging. There are conflicts between the mountain girls as they compete to become the academy princess and hopefully win the prince’s attention, conflicts between the girls and their tutor who thinks they aren’t smart enough to become like civilized lowlanders; and then there is Miri’s inner conflict about her place in the community and if she wants to stay on Mount Eskel or leave with the prince. There are conflicts involving bandits and the lowlander traders. Hale balances all of it gracefully while centering on Miri and her choices to act amidst those conflicts. I thought the variety of conflicts added a large dose of interest to the story and also gave layers to Miri’s character, which makes her more realistic.
Education and books play a large role in the story as the mountain girls all learn to read at the academy and Miri develops a love for books and all the wondrous knowledge they hold. She becomes hungry for knowledge and it is through this hunger that she learns about commerce and brings what she has learned to her Pa and the villagers. Miri is instrumental in giving her village the information they need to stop the lowland traders from taking advantage of their ignorance. The story displays how education and applying that education can improve lives and raise the quality of living for a community. Education and books are portrayed as important and valuable, which they are!
I highly recommend this book for any young reader who enjoys fairy tales, friendships, princesses and school. Any kid who is a part of a middle school environment could relate to this book and its interpersonal relationships between the young people. The book also contains enough complexity to engage older readers. If this book were a person, it would be kind.