Princess Academy

Princess AcademyMy daughter’s assessment of Princess Academy was “Really good, but not at all what I was expecting.” That seems quite accurate to me. Due to machinations of the plot, a tutor from the lowlands comes to Mount Eskel to try to get a bunch of mountain girls trained up enough that one of them can be the bride of the prince, and therefore the future queen. Miri and her peers leave their village to stay at the Princess Academy for a year, at which point the prince will come and choose his bride at the ball.

It’s really not a princess story, though—it’s a story of these girls having their sheltered world broken open and trying to learn what to do with the things they find out. There’s also a touch of magic, because the mountain is sort of its own character. People who are part of the mountain can communicate in “quarry speak” which lets them talk mind-to-mind even in the very loud quarries. And more than anything, it’s a novel about not making assumptions—about yourself or about the people around you.

SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid

Violence and Bullies

The tutor treats the girls really poorly at first, beating them or locking them in closets as punishments. Bandits take over the academy, threatening bodily harm and death to anyone who doesn’t listen or who tries to escape. Although none of the girls are injured permanently, the bandits hurt them and tie up Miri as the ring leader and would absolutely kill them if given cause.

Miri eventually sets up the situation where the lead bandit falls to his death. It’s her only chance to live, but she knows what she’s doing when she gets him to trip.

Miri usually takes the job of killing and skinning the rabbits they raise because it makes her older sister really sad to do it.


Miri leads several rebellions against the tutor, against the bandits, and against the traders who have been cheating her village for years. These aren’t violent uprisings—she stands up for what she believes in, even when she knows she’ll be punished. She does what she believes is right, even when she’s risking a lot to do it. At the academy, Miri learns history and diplomacy—these are the tools she uses in most of her rebellions. She eventually inspires some of the other girls to do the same, and she convinces her village to stand up to the traders. In the end, despite short term punishments, she gets what she was fighting for in pretty much every case.


Miri is small, and her mother died a week after she was born. Her father won’t let her work in the quarry. She assumes it’s because he thinks she’s weak and worthless. She constantly doubts her value to her family, to her friends, and to her village. At first, this isolates her as she pushes everyone away by assuming the worst intentions. Over time, she learns that her assumptions were frequently incorrect and she reaches out in spite of her fears.

Miri is definitely not alone in this. Most of the girls wonder at some point if the village even wants them or misses them.


The academy is set up to pit the girls against each other. It’s to their benefit to undermine the others. Miri feels herself being caught up in this, but she fights against it. She stands up for her friends, and then realizes that she doesn’t want to see any of the girls fail, so she stands up for all of them. In the end, she becomes Academy Princess (i.e., the top of the class) because she didn’t get pulled into the competition.


Many of the conflicts in the book are based on assumptions. Britta, who is from the lowlands, is assumed to be stuck up because she keeps herself removed from the others—it’s really that she’s an outsider and it makes her shy. The tutor assumes these mountain girls are hopeless, but of course she learns that she’s wrong about that. Miri frequently assumes that she knows what other people are thinking, and she almost always learns that she was wrong. The traders assume that the mountain people are stupid and desperate, but Miri helps them overturn that stereotype. Miri learns that people are much more complex than she gave them credit for.


Britta is on the mountain under less than honest circumstances, and in the end, this is rewarded. Her family’s elaborate lie gets them exactly what they want. Now, there’s a whole argument to be made that it should have turned out this way anyway and therefore it all worked out, but nevertheless, scheming in this case is rewarded.


Miri is best friends with Peder, but has recently realized that she also loves him. She’s not sure of his feelings, and worried about messing up their friendship by saying anything. Then it all gets complicated when the prince arrives, and everyone is making assumptions about everything…it all works out ok.


The Princess Academy wasn’t something anyone involved really wanted, but the education was really good for the girls. Miri in particular put her education to work in many ways—it also helped her be more connected to her home and the people of her village. She wants her whole village to have the benefit of education, and that’s one of the goals she’s working toward in the end. The Princess Academy also worked best when the students themselves were taken into account—the tutor had to learn a bit about the girls before she could learn to be a really good teacher for them.

Dealing with Differences

Esa has an arm that she can’t raise. This didn’t stop her from working in the village, and it’s only mentioned when she’s worried about dancing the prince. However, the women who come to dress the girls easily and politely work around this, using a beautiful drape of fabric to keep her arm from hanging down. This lets the prince hold her elbow instead of her hand when they dance, which he does gracefully and without saying anything about it.

Gender Stereotypes

Women are strong on Mount Eskel—most people work in the quarry. The Princess Academy creates the unusual dynamic of the girls being educated and then deciding that it’s unfair for the boys to not also have access to education. However, some stereotypes are still pervasive. When Peder’s mother realizes that Miri’s father never told her the full story of her birth, she says that men, especially Miri’s pa, tend to be silent and shuttered. Although he never really gets talkative, Miri’s father does show some emotion as the book goes on.

Nightmare Fuel

When Miri is locked in the closet for hours, a rat is in there with her. She remembers a baby who was killed by a rat bite. It chews on her hair and gets caught in her braid until finally the tutor remembers her, opens the door, and kills the rat. It might be…traumatic for some readers.


It’s not a princess book, but it’s an enjoyable book about the dynamics of a group of 12-17 year old girls. Like my daughter, it’s not what I expected and I couldn’t really predict where it was going to go, but I liked it. There’s a lot to think about, especially for readers currently struggling with changing peer dynamics—so, most middle schoolers. It’s appropriate for kids maybe 10 and up.


Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
Published in 2005 by Scholastic, Inc.
First in a series, followed by Palace of Stone and The Forgotten Sisters coming out in March, 2015
Read my daughter’s paperback


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