Juvenile Instructor » Mormon Teen Lit: Kara French on Shannon Hale’s “The Princess Academy”
 


Mormon Teen Lit: Kara French on Shannon Hale’s “The Princess Academy”

By: Amanda - October 05, 2012

Kara French is a PhD Candiate in the Joint Program in Women’s Studies and History at the University of Michigan where she studies the politics of sexual restraint in the early republic.  In addition to being an expert on early Shaker religious experiences, the politics of Catholic convents in nineteenth-century America, and the vegetarianism of Sylvester Graham, she is an avid reader whose interests include the comic romance novels of Lauren Willig as well as classics like those of Jane Austen and George Eliot.  

As a grad student who occasionally likes to take a vacation from high theory and nineteenth century manuscripts by reading young adult (YA) fiction, when my colleague Amanda solicited reviewers for YA literature by LDS authors, I jumped at the opportunity. This was part of a larger conversation we were having about how the books we had read as young men and women shaped our thinking about gender and sexuality during those all-important formative years. We thought it would be interesting to see if the YA lit written by LDS authors reflected any particularly Mormon thinking about gender. I should also note that I am a historian of 19th century American religion and women’s studies, not specifically Mormon Studies. So, I really appreciate the chance to come play in your sandbox here at Juvenile Instructor.

I chose Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy, which truthfully had been on my radar for awhile. I’m a huge fan of re-told or re-imagined fairy tales, and Princess Academy certainly fits the bill. This is the story of Miri, a fourteen year old girl growing up in the isolated village of Mount Eskel. The lives of the poor but peaceful villagers are turned upside down when it is prophesized that the bride of the next prince will come from their humble town. All the girls in the village aged twelve to eighteen (but no older than that because the princess cannot be older than the prince!) are required to attend the “Princess Academy,” where over the course of the year they will be transformed from rough-mannered country girls into sophisticated young ladies. In typical Cinderella fashion, at the end of the year there will be a ball and the prince will choose his bride. Much of the story centers around the ambivalence Miri and the other girls feel about being selected as the princess, and whether they could leave their beloved hometown behind to embark upon a different life in the cosmopolitan capital.

Admittedly, on the surface the premise of this book looks anything but feminist. I personally winced a little at the thought of girls younger than sixteen being taken away from their families so they can be groomed to marry someone, even if he is a prince. But Princess Academy actually sends a surprisingly empowering message about female agency. It is a powerful tonic against the contemporary “princess culture” that has sprung up around the Disney animated films. I’m talking about the phenomenon of young girls today sporting $80-$100 dresses from the Disney store and all the attendant merchandise that goes along with the idea of being a “princess.” Hale’s book sharply rejects that kind of consumerism. While Miri and the rest of the girls are certainly tempted to become the princess because it would mean an easier life for their poor families, they still remain “mountain girls,” and are suspicious of the soft luxurious life the “lowlander” elites live.

Rather than reject their hardscrabble upbringing in favor of the easy life of a princess, the girls actually use their education to improve life on Mount Eskel for everyone. Which brings me to a second point, Princess Academy’s strong endorsement for education, and female education in particular. When the story begins, no one in the isolated village of Mount Eskel can read or write. Even the adults know little about the laws of their country and their ignorance of business practices lead to them getting swindled by traders who seek the village’s most profitable commodity, a marble-like stone called linder. Miri and the rest of the girls share the education they received at the Academy with the rest of the village and end up founding a school so their parents, brothers and neighbors can learn how to read as well. This education revolution changes life on Mount Eskel for the better. In the end, one girl says it’s not that the kingdom needed a princess from Mount Eskel, but that Mount Eskel needed an Academy. However, it should be noted that the actual Princess Academy in the story is kind of terrible, run by a tyrannical teacher that whips the girls for the slightest infraction and looks down upon them for being from a poor territory. Hogwarts, it ain’t.

Religion does not play a very large role in Princess Academy. There are references to the girls’ desire to go home and attend chapel regularly with their families, but no overt discussions of faith. However, it is easy to spot some of the influences of Mormon history and culture on Hale’s story. For one, the setting of Mount Eskel, a harsh and remote place, calls to mind 19th century Deseret. This is compounded by the fact that Mount Eskel is a mere territory and unable to have full political participation in the kingdom until the book’s end. Like the popular image of the Mormon pioneer family, the men and women of Miri’s town work together to carve out a living on the mountaintop. This means hard physical labor in the quarry for both genders. Their attitude is very reminiscent of the statements made by 19th century Mormon suffragists that Utah women deserved the vote because men and women had built the state together. There’s also a strong emphasis on family, to the point where our protagonist is afraid to be chosen by the Prince because it would mean leaving her father and sister behind. One could easily draw a parallel between the close-knit community of Mount Eskel and a Mormon congregation.

But honestly, I’m not certain if these details really mark this book as “Mormon.” Once I know a piece of information about a creator of a given work- whether that is the author’s religion, or birthplace or sexual orientation, I can’t help searching for those influences in the text. The LDS influences in Princess Academy are much less overt than in say Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborntrilogy or even the hyper-popular Twilight series. I devoured Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker series in high school without any knowledge of Card’s religion or his political beliefs, simply because the first four books told an engaging story. I imagine the majority of non-LDS readers who pick up Hale’s book would likely walk away with the same impression. I would be interested in hearing in the comments from those of you who read Princess Academy as young adults or who have shared it with younger cousins, nieces, students, etc.  Does Hale occupy a special place in Mormon readers’ hearts as a childhood favorite?

Princess Academy is a fine book, with a plucky heroine, and one I would be happy to have my own daughter (or son) read some day. It’s a refreshing and empowering twist on the tired Cinderella trope. And though it may be written by a Mormon author, its message about the value of education and community is one that everyone can appreciate.

 

 

 



13 Comments

  1. Nicely done, Kara. Thanks for participating in this series and for dipping your toes into Mormon studies!

    Comment by Christopher — October 5, 2012 @ 11:27 am

  2. Kara, than you so much for doing this! I was wondering if you see any continuities between the way that women are portrayed throughout these books, regardless of whether or not the characters are Mormon or whether the book covers explicitly Mormon themes, i.e. is there a specifically Mormon idea of girlhood or boyhood in these books?

    Comment by Amanda — October 5, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

  3. Good work Kara.

    I am a fan of Shannon Hale. I would love to see something like Princess Academy or Goose Girl analyzed alongside Charley or some other Jack Weyland type thing I’ve never read. I think that though Shannon’s narrative may not be explicitly Mormon, it might provide a really interesting subversion narrative to Mormon YA fiction as well as the Disney princess nonsense.

    Comment by JanieceJ — October 5, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

  4. Thanks Janiece! I’m not familiar with Jack Weyland’s stuff but glancing over it on Amazon it reminds me of those old Lurlene McDaniel novels. (anyone ever read those?)

    I’m curious, have you read any of Hale’s books for adults- the “Austenland” series? it might be interesting to do a comparison of that with something like “The Jane Austen Book Club” or any other of the Austen inspired things out there.

    Comment by Kara — October 5, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

  5. Thanks Chris and Amanda. One thing I can say about how girls are portrayed is the way they often find strength in traditional femininity. They may be powerful magicians like Vin in the Mistborn series but femininity is never rejected. Women also tend to excel in traditionally feminine occupations- both Miri and Peggy Larner, the female protagonist of the Alvin Maker series- are teachers.

    Comment by Kara — October 5, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

  6. […] Mormon Teen Lit: Kara French on Shannon Hale’s “The Princess Academy”, by Kara French, Juvenile Instructor, part of an occasional series there about girls’ and women’s Mormon fiction and their messages about gender. “Admittedly, on the surface the premise of this book looks anything but feminist. I personally winced a little at the thought of girls younger than sixteen being taken away from their families so they can be groomed to marry someone, even if he is a prince. But Princess Academy actually sends a surprisingly empowering message about female agency. It is a powerful tonic against the contemporary “princess culture” that has sprung up around the Disney animated films. I’m talking about the phenomenon of young girls today sporting $80-$100 dresses from the Disney store and all the attendant merchandise that goes along with the idea of being a “princess.” Hale’s book sharply rejects that kind of consumerism. While Miri and the rest of the girls are certainly tempted to become the princess because it would mean an easier life for their poor families, they still remain “mountain girls,” and are suspicious of the soft luxurious life the “lowlander” elites live . . . Religion does not play a very large role in Princess Academy . . . However, it is easy to spot some of the influences of Mormon history and culture on Hale’s story. For one, the setting of Mount Eskel, a harsh and remote place, calls to mind 19th century Deseret. This is compounded by the fact that Mount Eskel is a mere territory and unable to have full political participation in the kingdom until the book’s end. Like the popular image of the Mormon pioneer family, the men and women of Miri’s town work together to carve out a living on the mountaintop. This means hard physical labor in the quarry for both genders. Their attitude is very reminiscent of the statements made by 19th century Mormon suffragists that Utah women deserved the vote because men and women had built the state together.” […]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, October 9, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — October 7, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  7. I loved your review. I am a big fan of Hale’s. Princess Academy is one of her best- I tell people “It is everything you would want to tell a 12 year old girl” (and Goose Girl is everything group would want to tell a 15 year old). No one does ‘empowered young woman’ like Shannon Hale does and she says that she doesn’t think of them as ‘strong women’, she just thinks of them as ‘women’.

    I don’t see much Mormonism (doctrinally or culturally) in her work, however, although much of it has a spiritual component.

    My favorite book of hers is Book of a Thousand Days- take an obscure German fairy tale and set it in a mythical Mongolian culture.

    Comment by Moss — October 7, 2012 @ 10:54 pm

  8. Thank you Moss! I agree, these are definitely books I would want my daughters, nieces, young neighbors reading. And it’s funny you mention “Book of a Thousand Days”- I was just browsing Hale’s Amazon page after I had written this review and almost wished I had read that one instead! It looks fantastic, adding it to my “to read” list.

    Comment by Kara — October 10, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

  9. Kara — I am reading the book right now. One of the things that has surprised me is the presence of class in the narrative. It’s not particularly Mormon but I was surprised to see it and so obviously. Mormon leaders have been relatively cool towards union and I wouldn’t describe Utah as a place that’s particularly friendly towards class analysis.

    Comment by Amanda — October 10, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  10. My daughter was in the play this summer (she was Bena). All I know is that it was much better than the play they did last year.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 10, 2012 @ 9:02 pm

  11. Amanda- interesting observation. Much of Hale’s work deals with class dynamics. It warrants a re-read through that lens.

    Comment by Moss — October 10, 2012 @ 11:00 pm

  12. well, class conflict is kind of a fairytale staple isn’t it, going all the way back to Cinderella. it makes sense to me that Hale would want to riff on that theme a little. I admit i saw it more as “Mormon”-like Mount Eskelions versus a richer and more decadent US culture, but you’re right that doesn’t really map on to the contemporary Mormon experience.

    Steve, it’s really cute that kids are performing the book in school. i could really see it lending itself to a school play.

    Comment by Kara — October 12, 2012 @ 11:24 am

  13. I can’t believe I missed this post. Not only have I read most of Shannon Hale’s books, I share the poster’s love for Lauren Willig. (I’m right in the middle of The Pink Carnation, as a matter of fact. But don’t tell my advisor that.)I’d have to agree with your conclusion. I see very little Mormon in this book–other than that I personally was told to read it by a Mormon.

    Someone mentioned the Austenland series in the comments. I try to forget that Hale wrote those, as I found them vapid and unrealistic. (I tend to have issues with romantic fiction.) I’ve read The Jane Austen Book Club as well, and I remember not hating it, but that’s all. It sounds like an interesting idea for a project, as does JanieceJ’s.

    Comment by Saskia — October 22, 2012 @ 8:50 am