Once upon a time, only two people in the entire world knew that nationally best-selling Utah author Shannon Hale was hard at work on a sequel to her beloved young adult novel “Princess Academy.” The only people in the know were Hale herself, and her husband, Dean. “I didn’t tell anyone else,” Hale said. “Not my agent, not my editor. I was very shy about it. I didn’t even tell my mom. I just needed to write it in a bubble, I think.”
Now the book has been written and the cat’s out of the bag: “Palace of Stone,” which finds bright teenager Miri leaving her mountain village to assist in preparations for a royal wedding, will be available online and at bookstores on Tuesday. Over the next few weeks, Hale will be visiting a handful of bookstores in Utah, including two in Orem, to promote the new book.
Hale, 38, did tell her mom about “Palace of Stone,” eventually. And her agent. But even then, she said, “I swore them to absolute secrecy.”
“Princess Academy,” in which a gaggle of girls from a small mountain village are trained to become royal ladies after it’s announced that the prince of the realm will choose one of them to be his bride, became a young adult sensation after its publication in 2005. It won the Newbery Honor award the year after its publication, and it has cultivated a loyal readership ever since.
Laura Wadley, a librarian at Provo City Library, said that the library has 23 copies of “Princess Academy.” On the day that she spoke with the Daily Herald, only five of them were checked in.
“The book got so much bigger than I’d ever imagined,” Hale said. “I got timid about going back there again.” Readers have clamored for a sequel since “Princess Academy” was published. And while Hale initially intended it to be a standalone story — generally speaking, she said, “I have a hard time thinking beyond a single book” — she remained fond of the setting and characters.
“About three years ago,” she said, “I was thinking about Miri and everyone else and a word occurred to me: revolution. I found it so thrilling, and such a complicated idea.”
Singing the songs of angry men?
After traveling to the royal city in “Palace of Stone,” Miri meets many new people and sees a much wider world than the one familiar from her upbringing on the slopes of Mount Eskel. “She becomes friends with people who have radical ideas,” Hale said. And after that, well, read the book.
Hale said that there was never any pressure from her publisher, London-based Bloomsbury, to write a sequel to “Princess Academy.” On the other hand, she said, “They always let me know that it would be welcome.” And she understands that readers like series: “Characters become like friends, and you want to go back to them.”
Picking up about six months after the close of “Princess Academy,” “Palace of Stone” is Hale’s first book to continue the same story, with the same protagonist. She has, however, written indirect sequels before. Her 2003 book “The Goose Girl” is the first in a series that has grown to four books so far, with each volume linked to the ones preceding it by various character relationships. She likes her books to be self-contained, however, with readers not needing to know a long history of prior events to enjoy them.
“I probably do that because I’m such a forgetful person,” she said. “If I’m reading a sequel to a book I read four years ago, I don’t remember anything. My memory is shot after having four kids.” (Hale, who lives in South Jordan, gave birth to son Max in 2003, followed by daughter Magnolia in 2006, and twin girls Dinah and Wren in 2010.)
With four kids, time for writing comes at a premium. When there was just one, Hale said, she wrote during nap times. So you might think that the ideal time for writing now would be after all of the kids are in bed. “My kids don’t go to bed in the summer until 10,” Hale said. “And then I just fall down and die.”
The secret, she said, is outside assistance: “About four years ago I got a baby sitter. Currently she comes 15 hours a week.”
A new romance for Miri?
“Princess Academy” and Hale’s other books are often praised for Hale’s richly atmospheric writing. Marilee Clark, a librarian at Orem Public Library, said that Hale tells good stories with strong characters, but that what sets her apart from many of her peers is the caliber of her prose. Clark said that Hale “is a clear, evocative writer,” and that adults enjoy her writing as much as young readers do.
Indeed, one of Hale’s biggest fans is friend and fellow author Stephenie Meyer of “Twilight” fame. In press materials for “Palace of Stone,” Meyer said that she’s blown away by Hale’s books. “When I read them, I get lost in the magic,” Meyer said. “Her stories are magic.”
One thing about “Palace of Stone” that may invite comparisons to “Twilight,” if on a decidedly less operatic scale, is its romantic tension. “It’s funny with readers,” Hale said. “Especially with young readers, nothing is ever finished until the main character gets married.”
While she’s away from home, Miri misses Peder, a boy from her village who’s a gifted stonecarver and the object of her first love. She also meets Timon, a scholar from the royal city who captures her interest in other ways, and may just lay claim to her heart. Not, Hale said, for the sake of drama. She said she can hardly envision a fracas between Team Peder and Team Timon.
“I don’t know if I would be capable of writing a love triangle,” Hale said. Rather, meeting someone new just seemed like a natural experience for Miri to have: “She leaves her small, very isolated home and goes to the capital city, which is much more complicated than she could ever have imagined.”
Besides, descriptions of “Palace of Stone” may lead readers to expect one thing, but the book’s romantic outcome could be something else entirely. When she wrote “Princess Academy,” Hale knew that readers would be expecting a certain fate for the female protagonist of a book in which a prince comes to a remote mountain village to choose a bride. She even offered to rewrite the book’s ending to match conventional expectations.
Instead, she said, both her editor and her readers embraced what she’d written. “I thought there would be fallout,” she said, but “I’ve never had a complaint from a young reader.”
What’s the audience?
Boys — speaking of romantic outcomes — have also been on Hale’s mind for a different reason. At the end of July she created a minor sensation by writing a concise, yet pointed blog post wondering why more boys don’t read books like hers, which often (though not always) have female protagonists, and a girl on the cover.
It’s a given that girls are drawn to Hale’s books. As Wadley put it, “Girls and their moms love ‘Princess Academy’ partly for the story, and partly, I think, for the strong female protagonist.” What Hale wants to know, is why people tend to not make the same assumption about boys: Why shouldn’t boys, that is, be equally drawn to a strong female protagonist?
Hale is often asked in interviews, she said, why she doesn’t “write books for boys.” “Nobody means any harm from it,” Hale said, “but it’s something we haven’t thought about.”
She thinks it would be better to ask what messages boys are getting that turn them away from stories that don’t have male protagonists, and why. “There are so many great books that have girls in them that boys would love,” she said. “There’s no evidence that boys really don’t like these books.” Instead, parents, teachers and others take for granted and, in some cases, reinforce, the idea that boys won’t and shouldn’t read “girl” books.
Clearly, “revolution” isn’t just a word that colors the world of “Palace of Stone.” It’s something Hale would like to see more of in the world where she lives. “There’s a belief in the book world that girls will read anything, but boys will only read about boys,” Hale said, adding that, over many years and through various marketing schemes, that belief has become “a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Hale said that the clamor over her blog post, which generated more than 12,000 responses, shows that she’s not the only person to ask why young male readers are socialized to read only certain books. Until something changes, she said, the one with the most to lose are boys: “Clearly we’re denying them stories and books they might benefit from.”