Princess Academy by Shannon Hale; Newbery Honor Book.
The Plot: Miri lives on Mount Eskel; her family, like the entire village, works in the quarry. All Miri wants to do is take her place as an adult and work in the quarry, but her father has forbidden it. Miri's world is turned upside down when representatives from the king of Danland announce that the priests have decided that the Prince's wife will come from Mount Eskel.
How to prepare all these village girls for life as a Princess? A Princess Academy! But this is more than a "make over", more than learning how to use the correct knife and fork. It's hard work, and the girls are isolated from their families and well aware of the stakes; becoming Princess means they can leave their poverty stricken lives.
The Good: With the title Princess Academy, and the rags to riches story, of course the reader thinks, Cinderella. And yes, as the story is read, one can see fairy tale inspired plots and characters. But the Cinderella character isn't who one may think; and fate turns out to be as much about deliberate choice and action as about a priest's prophecy. (I adored Buffy and Angel as much as the next person, but I prefer to think we make our own fate. And Princess Academy is all about making our futures.)
Princess Academy deserves each and every one of its awards. (In the whole literary v. popular debate that arises, particularly over the Newbery, my POV is that the two aren't mutually exclusive; IMHO, PA proves my point. Literary and popular. It's like a Reese's cup, two great tastes that taste great together!)
The prize appears to be marrying the prince and becoming princess; but it's not. The prize is about education; expanding one's world views; making and taking opportunities; and recognizing that different people have different yet equally valid views. What makes one person happy may make another miserable.
The education includes reading; but it's more than that. This book also shows the value of learning about diplomacy, commerce, and economics. I know, how many times is commerce realistically discussed in books! And in a way that is not a lesson, but an essential part of the plot.
Part of why Hale is a genius is that there is no "mean girl". At first, there appears to be; but what it turns out to be is that some girls were at their worst because of competition, and others at their worst because they were in an unhappy situation without any escape. The Princess Academy doesn't only train the girls to be princesses; it also shows them a different way of living, both in making village life better but also in giving those who want it a way to leave the village.
It's usual to find tension between those who want to see the world and those who are content to stay home. Depending on the book, the explorers don't know what they're giving up by not being content with the world they have, or the stay at homes are complacent and unimaginative. What is great about Hale is there are no such judgment; it's not selfish to leave, nor is it backward to stay. Each choice is valid.
The third reason Hale is a genius is she only reveals a little bit of this world, of Mount Eskel, the countries and histories and conflict. There is just enough for the story; but I was always confident that Hale knew everything, that this world was complete. While I don't want a sequel -- Miri's journey is satisfactorily completed by the end of the book -- I am intrigued by her world, and would love to read a companion book set in Danland.
And the final reason Hale is a genius: she likes Joss Whedon. (scroll down, it's there.)
Links: Washington Post: We Interview Shannon Hale. Kids Reads Author Talk.