Recently, I read some wonderful children's fantasy books for my Materials for Youth class. The first book I chose to read was Princess Academy by Shannon Hale.
Miri lives on Mount Eskel, where the people work in the stone quarries which provide linder (a special kind of stone) to the rest of Danland. Miri is small, and her father won't let her work in the quarries. One day news comes to the mountain - the prince will be choosing his future princess from Mount Eskel. In order to be prepared, the girls must attend a special school where they will all learn how to be a princess. Miri is not sure that she even wants to be a princess, but she has no choice - every girl must attend the academy even though only one will ultimately become princess. Throughout her time at the academy, Miri endures poor treatment from the headmistress and even the other students. However, when a team of bandits plans to kidnap the future princess, Miri and the girls must band together to defeat them. They soon learn a powerful secret about Mount Eskel and must use it to escape the danger they are in.
I was very impressed with the character development in this story. Miri's mother named her after "the flower that conquered the rock and climbed to face the sun" (p. 14). This is an appropriate metaphor for the character because she is small and delicate. At first, she perceives herself as weak and incapable of contributing to her village, but by the end of the story she discovers inner strength which helps her break free from the evil bandits and save the lives of her fellow village girls. The miri flower is a powerful metaphor for Miri's life - she has conquered adversity and has bloomed into a strong young lady despite the odds stacked against her. Miri is a heroine that sends the message that anyone can make a difference, no matter how small they are. Miri is a great role model for young girls. She stays true to her heart; she is a good friend who puts herself in danger to help others; and she uses her education to better herself and to give back to her community. If you're looking for a book with a strong heroine, you will not be disappointed with Princess Academy.
This is the first audiobook I've listened to that had a full cast. It was a good experience for me - it really helped me keep track of all the characters. Plus, I liked hearing the songs that they sang (and there are quite a few songs in this book). Definitly check out Princess Academy, either in print or audio. It's a great read either way.