Somehow I got it in my head that The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale was the basis for that Disney movie about an ordinary girl (Anne Hathaway, I think?) who is told she's a princess and taken away to learn how to be one. From what I could tell from the previews, Anne has all the usual lessons in deportment and ballroom dancing, and she ends up meeting the prince of her dreams.
Well, I was wrong.
The Princess Academy, indeed, does involve an ordinary girl who is taken away from her home to learn to be a princess. And Miri does study Conversation and Dancing in order to be ready for the ball when the prince will choose his future bride. But The Princess Academy teaches Miri more than these typical "girly" things; she also studies Commerce and Diplomacy, two subjects that she puts to good use to improve the lifestyle of her village. I really appreciated that Shannon Hale had her heroine (who is a very sympathetic and appealing character) break away from the "princess" stereotype that little girls are normally fed by popular culture. Oh, sure, Miri is fascinated by the beautiful dress the academy princess (the top student) will get to wear at the ball, and she also has a love interest, so the break from the stereotype is not a clean one. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I'm not one of those feminists who think girls should reject all things feminine in order to avoid exploitation. But what I like is that Miri goes beyond the limits of the stereotype to use skills that girls often aren't encouraged to develop.
My favorite example was when Miri and the other girls use Diplomacy to regain entrance to the academy after they ran away to attend their village's festival. Instead of pouting their way back in, or promising they would never do such a thing again, the girls (led by Miri) bargain with the head of the academy by pointing out her unsatisfactory behavior, by admitting their own wrong, and by setting terms for settlement of the disagreement. All this was done in a respectful, assertive manner. What a great, empowering model for young girls!
I also liked the ingenuity Miri shows in figuring out the "quarry speech" of the village, as well as her bravery and unselfishness at the story's climax. She sounds too good to be true, doesn't she? But Hale manages to make Miri a real and believable character instead of a cardboard cutout of perfection. Normally, I don't push "princess" stories on my daughter; if she discovers them on her own, I don't forbid them, either. However, The Princess Academy is a princess story I am more than happy for her to read.