Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Palace of Stone, with Mark Flowers

As Jonathan and I continue to start including guests in our posts now and then, it occurred to us that this could be an elegant solution to the “of two minds” problem.  This iteration of the problem being when Nina and Jonathan’s two minds are united in a single struggle to get enthusiastic about a title that is generating a lot of enthusiasm, and deserves it’s own post.  While we think we’re right all the time…we know we’re not.

At the true Newbery table, a nominator of each title generally introduces it for discussion. So, we asked our Mock Newbery discussion partner and Heavy Medal commenter Mark Flowers to lead us off on one he keeps on piping in on.  Here’s Mark, on Shannon Hale’s Palace of Stone.

My thanks to Jonathan and Nina for the chance to write about one of my favorite Middle Grade books of the year.  Palace of Stone is the sequel to Newbery Honor book The Princess Academy.  Having just reread it, without much memory of the first book, I think it stands up on its own easily, so I don’t think that should be an issue, although I’d love to hear from people who haven’t read the first one at all.  In any case, Palace of Stone is a fabulous novel all around, and excels in several of the Newbery criteria, including delineation of characters (especially Miri, Timon, Sisi, and Britta), and development of plot, but where I think it stands above almost every other contender is in its interpretation of theme or concept, so I’m going to spend the bulk of this post talking about that.

In the last line of the novel’s first paragraph, Hale sets out a version of the theme which she will pursue: “Strange, lately, how many things made her feel two opposite ways twisted together.” This theme of warring dichotomies plays out in several separate spheres of the plot.

On a highly abstract level (the abstractness of which Hale repeatedly has the down-to-earth Eskelites mock), Hale presents Miri in her classes at the Queen’s Castle with a classic ethical dilemma: the building you are in is burning and you have the choice to save either a priceless, irreplaceable painting, or a murderer incarcerated in the building, which do you choose to save.  Hale starts this discussion on p. 42 (all page numbers from the ARC) at Miri’s first day of classes, but brings it back over and over as being emblematic of the other dilemmas Miri faces.

The most relatable of these is Miri’s conflict over her love of her home in Mount Eskel, and her newfound freedom and education in Asland, which she herself symbolizes as a clash between the mountain and the ocean: “Liking the ocean seemed a betrayal of Mount Eskel. Both could not be magnificent” (p. 87).  Much more significant is her choice between supporting the rebels whose ideals she shares or defending her friend, the princess.  Timon tells her outright:  “You are smart Miri. you know you can’t support both your friend the princess and the commoners’ fight for fairness” (p. 159).

As the plot brings Miri into position to have to actually make these choices, she is able to reveal Hale’s true theme: that many times these are false dichotomies.  Miri begins to break free from the schema when, again arguing about the Ethics dilemma, she says, “But I love the painting. I don’t want to have to choose” (p. 196). Her choice is validated in a discussion with Peder in which Peder’s mother’s down-to-earth wisdom is quoted on two sides of the same issue and Peder remarks, “You know, Ma is very good at saying two things at once” (p. 205).

At this point, rejecting these false dichotomies, Miri puts into action her plan, which involves a sort of peaceful revolution (foreshadowed, by the way, back on page 31 when Katar reminds Miri that “What we did last year–what you did, Miri–that was revolution. Turning things around,” playing on the more etymological definition of “revolution.”), and she finally makes explicit the connection between her personal dilemma and the Ethics debate: “‘Which would you save, the murderer or the painting?’ She knew her answer now. Both. She would find a way. ‘Which do you choose, the princess or the revolution?’ Both. Who says it has to be one or the other?” (p. 307)

At the same time, she realizes that she need not choose between her home on Mount Eskel and her home in Asland, as both can be loved equally, asserting that “A person can be more than one thing” (p. 318).

The above outline of Hale’s theme makes the book sound pretty schematic, but in fact the text teems with examples, small and large, like the ones I’ve quoted (there is also, of course, the much more real dichotomy between Peder and Timon).  In a very brief scene, in which the King and all the girls watch a play about bandits, we get a mini-version of this theme, trying to find a distinction between law and lawlessness:

Miri begins by noting that the king seems not to do much and “She . . . wondered for the first time if Danland actually needed a king.”  Then as the play begins: “I hate bandits, she reminded herself . . . . But she could not help cheering the bandit in the story, with his expressive eyes and lavish words.” (p. 61).  Thirty pages later, this scene is brought to mind again when Miri learns about the unfair tribute payments, and declares that the king is “nothing more than a bandit” (p. 94).  These sorts of brief scenes and nods to the theme of dichotomy and false dichotomy are found constantly in the novel.

What makes this interpretation of theme stands out so greatly for me is twofold: 1) the consistency and depth of the theme as it arises organically from a variety of plot sources; and 2) the rarity in other books of its type of this kind of complexity of thought.  Typically, in books, movies, TV, etc. characters and authors alike will reflexively be either pro-noble (the story is told from the perspective of the well-off, the status quo is either seen as good or accepted as the norm) or pro-commoner (characters are poor or marginalized, with the wealthy seen as monolithically out of touch—and no one bother to examine the assumptions of either position. Regardless of whether or not you agree with Hale that Miri does can have it both ways, it is a complex and thoughtful answer to a question which rarely gets asked in children’s literature.

Mark Flowers is a Teen Librarian at the John F. Kennedy Library in Vallejo, CA.  He contributes to a variety of library journals and blogs, and maintains his own blog on Teen Literature and Librarianianship at

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I liked this one, but did not see it as being as strong as its predecessor. So much of the tension in the story hinges on Miri not being able to choose between two apparently polar positions, but while I knew that Miri was troubled *I* never felt troubled. Britta doesn’t get enough screen time until the end to make her seem like a real person who is extremely important to Miri, we’re told that they’re good friends rather than shown.

    I also was frustrated by the subverting of the Ethics question. The entire point of these thought experiment Ethics questions is that they create an opportunity to spark discussion about what is important, what are values are, how those values can change with circumstances, etc. The questions isn’t a problem to be solved, the way the other dilemmas in Miri’s life are. Thinking about the question is an end in itself. You CANNOT save both, so which one do you retrieve from the fire. Answering an Ethics question with “oh, it doesn’t matter if this is a hard choice, I’ll just find a way to do both” is both cheating and missing the point. I think that that particular choice of an Ethics question actually undermines the theme. If the general theme is that many dichotomies are false, that you can find a way to compromise between them, then the author should have found an Ethics question that could have been cleverly subverted by a compromise, rather than one that, by its very nature (the question is “which ONE do you save and why?”) cannot be resolved by doing both.

    I was also frustrated by the scene at the end where the Queen stands up for herself and the others. I thought that the scene would have been weighted with so much more emotional heft if we had scene throughout the book the Queen being slighted or denied power. She is obviously overwhelmed by the experience, and one of her motivations is clearly to make a difference at last, have an impact. Yet there is no real indication previous to this that she is frustrated or impotent. I think there is one off-hand reference where she makes a snide remark about how Britta should get used to being ignored (I dont’ have the book, so I can’t check.) How much more powerful would that scene have been if throughout the book we’d had little scenes where Stefan and the king dismissed the Queen’s opinions or she tried to speak and was silenced? Instead a Queen who is willing to risk a great deal for something that she has not previously cared about, when no one else would be willing to do it, and there are real consequences if it all goes wrong, that all just comes out of nowhere.

  2. Nina Lindsay says:

    This may be the hardest sequel to judge this year, since I think it is very different than its predecessor (and in my mind less strong), yet we really have to judge it on its own merits.

    Like Alys, I felt frustrated by the “ethical” narrative because I think it undercut itself… I feel that this was really a *romance* novel more than anything else, but trying to do two things. I probably wanted the ethics more than the romance. I’m intrigued by Mark’s post and need to re-read the book. I also want to approach from the point of view of a 12-13 year old girl reader for whom the romance is ideal: in many ways, Hale has written the perfect book for her readers in this regard.

  3. @Alys – I agree with you that the point of the ethical question is that you cannot chose both, but you have to look at the reaction of the Mount Eskelites to the question, which is essentially “that’s a stupid question.” Miri at least takes the question seriously, but she is still enough of an Eskelite to understand (by the end) that sometimes ethical questions are just so much hot air. Again, as I said at the end of my post, I’m not saying I necessarily agree with Hale’s solution, but I think it’s a smart and risky way of approaching the question.

    @Nina – that’s fascinating, because (as you see from my post) I saw it as a political novel from page one. Perhaps it hit me this way because of my personal baggage–I’m a pacifist at the same time as being a bit of a socialist, a tension that has always brought me into conflict with my more revolutionary minded leftist friends. In any case, it is a conflict that strikes a personal note for me, and as such I thought Hale handled it very well.

  4. I’m that reader who read this without knowing anything about the first one. (If I’d known this was what it was about–and if I had ever seen that first beautiful cover of PRINCESS ACADEMY–I would have read the original much sooner.) I don’t think I have sequel/series bias; I championed A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS a couple of years ago without having read any of the previous Attolia books. But this one fell flat for me. I thought it was good, but not distinguished.

    I haven’t read PRINCESS ACADEMY yet, though I have it out from the library and will read soon. PALACE OF STONE definitely made me want to read it, so that’s something. But I never was able to separate from the knowledge that I was reading a sequel. That isn’t necessarily a killer for me, but the parts that were (as far as I could tell, not having read the first book) backstory/recap were tiresome, lacked the vivacity of other parts of the book. I compare that to CONSPIRACY, where if there was recap (I still haven’t read the other books), I certainly couldn’t tell, because it blended in fairly seamlessly. I suspect THE GREY KING is the same way, though I can’t speak to that with authority; I’d read the others first in that case.

    But it isn’t just sequel issues. I thought the book had some real dead spots in general. In particular, the scene where one of the girls is trapped under a stone shelf. If I understood the book correctly, this same thing happened in PRINCESS ACADEMY? Anyway, it felt contrived, unnecessary to the overall plot, something tacked on to demonstrate quarry speech. (Which was somewhat necessary, though–I didn’t understand it at all for a large part of the book, and thought they were talking about sign language.) And most of the characters in general did not come alive for me. I felt the same as Alys regarding Britta; I didn’t believe them as best friends on any deep level and had to take their word for it. Neither did I understand why people kept saying that the prince would have chosen Miri if Britta hadn’t been there; she didn’t seem more special than the other girls, especially since there’s no sign that the prince is an intellectual.

    I felt better about the queen’s storyline than Alys did. Maybe I’m just interested in queens; I know I’m always sympathetic to female characters who seem to have no power or agency in their lives; anyway, without meaning to I paid special attention to the queen and was glad when she got a bigger role. The feelings and actions of both the queen and Miri (and her friends) worked for me. What didn’t work for me, however, was the very quick resolution at the end. The book had certainly gone on long enough by that point, but the relative suddenness didn’t seem to correspond with the political climate and history.

    My favorite part: the first protest, on the docks, and its aftermath (or lack thereof, rather). That felt real and exciting.

  5. Jonathan Hunt says:

    PALACE OF STONE has many distinguished elements and not many flaws, but then I’m a natural fantasy reader and perhaps I’m not as critical on the first read as I should be. The thing that makes me balk at ranking this one as a more serious contender comes from a holistic comparison with other books–to other fantasies (THE FALSE PRINCE and SERAPHINA), to my earlier nominations (BOMB, MOONBIRD, and NO CRYSTAL STAIR), and even to books that I didn’t enjoy as much but suspect may be better written (SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS).

    Two pieces of baggage–

    First, Sarah Flowers talked earlier in the year on her blog about how we committee members become invested in “our” authors. We root for them, but also tend to be critical, too. In Sarah’s case, she was talking about THE FIRST PART LAST (her Printz Award) and Angela Johnson’s new book, A CERTAIN OCTOBER. In my case, it’s PRINCESS ACADEMY and PALACE OF STONE. I feel that same kind of tension. I’m rooting for Shannon and I think she still has some award magic left in her pen, but I feel like she set such a high bar with PRINCESS ACADEMY.

    Second, can we talk about how much I dislike the cover? I know Bloomsbury likes photographed covers, but why do the Bayern paperbacks get pretty people and vibrant colors and PRINCESS ACADEMY/PALACE OF STONE get frumpy, freckled girls with dung-brown backgrounds? Ugh!

  6. I prefer the original PRINCESS ACADEMY cover, but I actually liked that the new picture one isn’t of “pretty people.” She looks like a real girl, and Miri is grounded, she’s a “real” person, not a “pretty” person. In real life not everyone is drop dead gorgeous or carefully primped and plucked and covered in makeup. It irritates me how many YA covers ARE plastered with impossibly pretty people, even when the character’s descriptions specifically define them as ordinary or average. I didn’t like the PALACE cover because I think it makes Miri look too pretty and sophisticated, though I suppose she does become more polished through her time in the capital. I’m with you on the muddy brown background colors, though the Bayern paperback backgrounds look unreal and photoshopped with their brighter colors, so I’m not sure that would have been any better.

  7. [Heh. Jonathan, the reason I mention the newer cover of PRINCESS ACADEMY as being something I avoided–and why I never would have read PALACE OF STONE if it weren’t for Newbery talk–was that the covers are TOO pretty-pretty. Not frumpy at all! But then, I like freckles.To each his/her own, I guess.]

  8. Nina Lindsay says:

    Um, I don’t know what to say. Was coming to jump in with a long entangled discussion about reading sequels that I thought up over lunch, but right now I just feel frumpy and freckled. Like Wendy, I thought she was too pretty, and didn’t like the cover because of *THAT*. I feel like I’m twelve in the girl’s locker room. Slinking off now.

  9. Like Mark, I saw this as a political novel from the start too. Unlike Mark, I was disappointed in how that was executed. The idea of revolution was new to Miri and so her indecision and naivete made complete sense in the context of the story. The idea of revolution was not new to the citizens in the city who were at the point of constructing gallows in the square and marching on the palace. The resolution for that was far too easy for a situation caused by complex problems and with emotions running as high as they were. The nobles were even in rebellion by this point. I feel like Hale set up a major conflict and then took the easy way out of it by relying on the magic of the special mountain girls. I was disappointed.

    I think Nina’s point about approaching it from the PoV of a 12-13 year old reader is a valid one. I have given this some thought, because I wondered if my own cynical outlook and love of complex political driven plots was coloring my view. It probably is, but would have when I was 12-13 too. When I was that age I had already read A TALE OF TWO CITIES, the abridged version several times and the unabridged once. It was my favorite book at the time and I think that I would have found this one disappointing in comparison the same way I do now. Not everyone is going to see it that way. They aren’t going to care that the politics and ethics are missing some elements, and are going to be swept into the romantic magical part of the story. I think this is true whatever the age of the reader. It will depend on preference. I did feel the point of the book was to be about politics and revolution and the conclusion hampers it from distinguishing itself in that area.

    When I hold it up against the other books I’ve read this year and thought were truly distinguished in terms of theme it just doesn’t cut it. I agree with Jonathan’s comparison. It falls short of other fantasies of this year. (Not just THE FALSE PRINCE, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, and SERAPHINA, but also ABOVE WORLD, PEACEWEAVER, and THE DROWNED VAULT. I feel all of these are more distinguished in terms of theme, setting, and character.) I also can’t see putting it before many of the other books mentioned in the nominations post this week. (BOMB, LIAR & SPY, MOONBIRD, THE ONE AND ONLY IVAN).

  10. Excellent review, Mark! I, too, really enjoyed PALACE OF STONE and would not be upset to see it recognized by the Newbery committee. Just as Nina said, I really tried to put myself in the mindset of a 12-year-old reader, and concluded that it offers so much rich material for that age–especially in terms of theme and plot (and the love triangle doesn’t hurt). As an adult, many of the ideas in the book were familiar to me, but I think it would’ve blown my mind to read this when I was a kid. Mark’s review was right on when he said children’s literature can often be good vs bad, especially in the fantasy genre. It’s really invigorating to read a middle grade novel that explores the nature of politics and power without wiping away the moral complexities. (I will also say, though, that many of my top picks this year do an outstanding job of humanizing the story’s antagonists as well as the protagonists.)

    As a side note, I feel like this would be a fantastic HUNGER GAMES read alike. I saw so many similarities between the two books that I wondered if Shannon Hale is a Suzanne Collins fan.

  11. A word about age levels:
    I’m a little perplexed at this title being compared to SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS, SERAPHINA, and THE QUEEN’S THIEF series. I see all of those novels as being very high MG edging rapidly into YA (indeed SERAPHINA and the entire THIEF series are in the teen section of my library). While I see PALACE OF STONE as being a much lower level MG novel. In my mind, I was comparing it to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series — books which were easy for me to read at 9 or 10 and easy for me to understand as my mother read them to me at an even younger age. Having brought up Alexander, I bring up probably the greatest all time example of books aimed at this reading level which address political and ethical themes from a truly nuanced and complex perspective. And, frankly, I don’t think PALACE OF STONE lives up to those books. But it’s in the ballpark. And it is against books of that age/reading level that I think Hale’s complexity of theme and plot delineation, etc. should be compared, not against the incredible complexity of Megan Turner.

  12. (I guess my post didn’t make it in before the downtime; apologize if this general idea eventually shows up twice.)

    I think I was the only one who compared the book to the THIEF series, at least here, but I only did it in the context of both this and A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS being sequels. (I do agree that this is younger, but I don’t think the comparison is so far off, at least in other ways.) I was thinking of other Newbery-crowned sequels and how they handle the recapping issue. DICEY’S SONG is another I read before the first book, and while there were a few things that puzzled me and that I didn’t understand until I’d read HOMECOMING, I thought the book both worked without having read the first and didn’t have awkward recaps. (A SOLITARY BLUE, which I thought was the best of the lot, didn’t have such a hard row to hoe, being a companion rather than a true sequel.)

    This is getting monotonous, but I felt the same about honor book A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT (though I knew the others very well before reading that) and A YEAR DOWN YONDER. I could go on, but I think my point is that there are actually quite a number of sequels and later-in-the-series books in the canon, but one thing they seem to have in common to me is that they handle any necessary recapping gracefully, and I didn’t find that in PALACE OF STONE.

  13. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The cover model for PRINCESS ACADEMY/PALACE OF STONE is pretty, to be sure, she’s only the ugly duckling when compared to the superhumanly beautiful people on the Bayern paperbacks. Clearly, Bloomsbury has chosen to pitch this cover to the romance market. I just wish they had illustrated the hardcover and waited for paperback to do this cover.

    Last year, Horn Book did an interview with Franny Billingsley in which she talked about the dichotomy between saving your soul (BEAUTY) and saving the kingdom (THE BLUE SWORD). I think more than perhaps any other author currently writing Shannon Hale is able to bridge the gap between BEAUTY and THE BLUE SWORD in a single novel.

  14. Oh, I forgot to add that there was one scene that I did not believe for a single second. The scene where Britta runs out into the courtyard to save the little boy (losing her slippers and becoming “shoeless” in the process) was absolute fantasy from start to finish. Once she had saved the boy then maybe, MAYBE the incredibly revved up rebels with itchy trigger fingers might have held their fire. But when she first runs off the stage they didn’t know what she was doing. I cannot believe that they wouldn’t all have started shooting immediately. I don’t have the book, but I think there’s even a sentence about the news drifting back towards the edge of the crowd slowly. It just doesn’t make sense that all of those people with guns or other weapons, all of whom were riding an emotional high and therefore probably not thinking all of their actions through carefully, would have withheld their anger and not shot her. So much of the revolution’s resolution, the sudden shift of empathy with Britta rides on this scene, and it’s just so unbelievable, right down to the cliche of “little child about to be run over”.

  15. I admit, I don’t necessarily trust my judgment with Shannon Hale books. I love her books and want other people to feel the same. Princess Academy was probably my LEAST favorite of all her books, but it won a Newbery Honor! Woo-hoo! So with this book, I came at it thinking, Yay! Here’s another book that a committee might find as distinguished as I do.

    I love that Mark has pointed out one of the reasons the book is good. I couldn’t put my finger on it as well as he did, but, yes, the theme is explored throughout the book. I thought the plot is also distinguished, with many different threads running from the start of the book through the end.

    The objections some commenters had — Miri’s friendship with Britta, that Miri would definitely have been chosen if not Britta — were factors covered in the first book. So that is one way that being a sequel hurts the book — though having read the first book, I always prefer when the author doesn’t include an obvious summing-up.

    Now, all that said, I still don’t think I love this book as much as Goose Girl, or any of the Books of Bayern. But I definitely love it more than Splendors and Glooms, which is more to the point of Newbery discussion. Does “delineation of character” include likeability? Because I just didn’t care much about the characters in S&G. I could go on….

    Like I said, I don’t trust my perspective on this one, but I already knew that I loved the way she worked in serious issues into a fairy-tale type plot, giving it depth but keeping it a light-hearted fantasy tale. Then Mark comes along and puts the discussion in terms of the Newbery criteria. Yes!

  16. Sondy said: “Does “delineation of character” include likeability? Because I just didn’t care much about the characters in S&G.” That’s an interesting question. I think it matters to the criteria if the author was *trying* to make you like their characters and failed in that attempt, but not at all if likeability is not an issue with which the author is concerned. I’d love to hear more from Sondy on SPLENDORS AND GLOOM vs. PALACE OF STONE because I can’t seem to get a bead on S&G in the least. Were there specific things that you think Schlitz did wrong with her characters?

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    For what it’s worth (i.e. not very much), I didn’t care for the characters in S&G either. They could’ve all been turned into puppets. Good riddance! The names–Parsefall, Wintermute, Pinchbeck–struck me as trying too hard to be Dickensian and not succeeding as well as, say, the immortal Miss Slighcarp in THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE. I also have to say that I rarely get scared by what I read (even as a child) so the gothic atmosphere and the imminent threat of danger didn’t help things much.

    But I don’t think this has anything to do with Schlitz; it has everything to do with me. I’m simply the wrong reader for this book. I can objectively see how a different reader would not only care very deeply for those characters, but also see this book as the most distinugished book of the year.

  18. Sondy, I don’t like an obvious summing-up either, but I think whether or not the author included those things in the first book, there was nothing in the second to make me believe they were true. They were stated, but why wasn’t this history borne out in the interactions of the people in the book? I don’t mean that I wanted the whole back story, I mean that I wanted to see special warmth between Miri and Britta and some kind of star quality from Miri, or whatever it is that would have made her the prince’s choice.

  19. I don’t think likability is a factor in delineation of character, so long as there is no intention of them being likable. I also had no interest in the characters in S&G, particularly the ones focused on the most. However, I do see clearly why Schlitz chose the characteristics she did for them, why she had them play the roles they were playing, and how they played their parts in the story she was telling and played them well. Not so much in PALACE. I enjoyed reading PALACE more though.

    What Sondy said about working serious issues into a fairy-tale plot is, I think, why I am having a problem with this one. What was the intention there? Was it to highlight the serious issues or diminish them? Because I feel like she did the latter. There is a can’t-we-all-just-get-along-naivete to the resolution that doesn’t mesh with the seriousness of the revolution. I think I would have swallowed it better if the revolutionary movement had been just beginning and not reaching its boiling point. The scene Alys brought up with Britta was a real sticking point for me too. As it began I thought, “Britta is going to be hurt/killed. Things are about to get real!” But no-not so much, and what actually happened in no way fits the reaction of an unruly blood thirsty angry mob. It makes more sense if the book was intended to romanticize the idea of revolution, but I don’t think that was its intent. This is why the distinguished theme argument is not working for me on this one.

  20. I certainly agree with Alys about Britta in the courtyard with the little boy. Given the insight we had been privy to as readers regarding the nature of the mob, the reaction Hale provided was very unrealistic to me. As were several scenes close to the end of the book. As someone else mentioned, I felt the book was very politically charged and precisely developed up until the closing. It seemed to me that Hale then felt the need to make a tidy little ending, and it just didn’t mesh with the rest of the novel. The change in the nature of the queen, the sudden passing of the tribute law, pretty much everything that happened in the room with the assassin, just did NOT work for me as a reader.

    That being said, Mark’s points about the dueling dichotomies theme rang true to me and reminded me what I love about Hale’s writing. When it comes to committing to a theme- this girl is all in. Despite the plot disparities I found at the end, I still felt the plot was in sync with the theme.

Speak Your Mind