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Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale
More than anything else, Miri Larendaughter wants to be useful.
Miri lives in the mountain village of Mount Eskel. The people of Mount Eskel quarry and trade in linder, a white, sparkling stone with colored veins running through it. Miri, who is small for her age, wants to go down to the quarry to help. Her father, however, has forbidden her to even set foot in the quarry, much less work there. Miri feels that this is highly unfair, since all but the smallest children are allowed to work in the quarry. Even Esa, who only has the use of one arm, helps in the quarry.
Then, one day, a delegate from the king of their nation, Danland, comes to tell them that the eldest son of the king is ready to marry and that the priests of their creator god have identified Mount Eskel as the home of the future queen.
All of the girls between the ages of 12 and 17 who live in Mount Eskel are to attend the Princess Academy, a school that will be set up to teach the girls the things that the princess will need to know. In past generations, the Princess Academy has been more of a finishing school than anything else. However, in this case, it will need to be more. The residents of Mount Eskel are illiterate, so the Academy will be teaching the basics such as reading and mathematics in addition to the finishing school curriculum.
None of the girls want to go, since they do not believe that any good will come of the academy. Most of them do not believe that the "lowlanders," as they call the people in the rest of the country, would ever make a Mount Eskel girl into their queen. Additionally, they believe that they would be more help to their families back in Mount Eskel than at the academy. And some just don't want to be away from home. Mount Eskel is all they know, and they are scared.
The government sends soldiers to escort the girls (read: "force them to go") to the academy, and so they end up going despite their doubts.
Their teacher, Olana, is clearly dubious about this whole project and so she is terribly strict with the girls. Miri sees the injustice in the way that Olana treats the girls and tries to persuade the other girls to see things the way that she does. She ends up getting herself into trouble with Olana, then with the other girls, in the process.
Eventually, Miri makes friends with Britta, a girl who just moved there from the lowlands when she became orphaned about six months previously. The other girls think that Britta is stuck up, since she seldom talks to anyone else. Miri gets to know Britta and finds that Britta is not stuck up, she is intimidated by the other girls. The other girls have known each other their whole lives, but Britta has only been there for such a short time and she knows that she is an outsider.
During the time that the girls are at the academy, they learn a lot about the world outside of Mount Eskel, and of course, they learn a lot about themselves. They also learn a lot about each other. It turns out that Britta was mistaken in her assumption that because the girls grew up together that they know each other well.
The story ends with a neat little twist in which the girls find their destinies. Apparently the creator god of their world knew what he was doing when he named Mount Eskel as the home of the future queen of Danland.