London, 1838. Sixteen-year-old Liza’s dreams of her society debut are dashed when her parents are killed in an accident. Penniless, she accepts the position of lady’s maid to young Princess Victoria and steps unwittingly into the gossipy intrigue of the servant’s world below-stairs as well as the trickery above. Is it possible that her changing circumstances may offer Liza the chance to determine her own fate, find true love, and secure the throne for her future queen?
Too often historical fiction for children and teens gets relegated to the dreaded “school assignment reading” category or it’s only appealing to those who are bookworms at heart and read large amounts of just about anything they can get their hands on. The average young reader won’t pick it up and often won’t even give it a second glance on the shelf. Michaela MacColl and Chronicle Books have fixed that problem with Prisoners in the Palace. Not only it it a captivating and well-written Victorian era novel, it also has some major shelf appeal for young adults. The book literally shines with it’s metallic foil cover and modern day make-over of Queen Victoria along with a back cover uniquely designed like a Victorian broadsheet (think TMZ on paper). The book presents a well-thought out mix of the old and new while staying true to it’s subject matter- a great combination for young adult readers. In a new twist to Queen Victoria’s ascent to the throne, MacColl has created a work that will keep teens interested and flipping the beautiful pages until the very end. Every page reflects her research, timing and attention to detail perfectly. It’s a must not only for young adult readers but also for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.
Today I am happy to welcome Michaela to Stiletto Storytime and what better topic for a guest post than censorship. As a librarian I have to say I have been on both sides of censorship in some ways. I have dealt with the parent that is upset that the picture book about a dirty puppy has the word “stupid” in it. She felt it should be pulled from the shelf. (Yes, this really happened). I have also read books that our library system may have had classified in the children’s fiction section (typically books for 12 and under) and made the decision based on content to move them to young adult (13+). I firmly believe in everyone’s right to express themselves but as a children’ librarian I am a stickler for designating books for the ages that are appropriate. In the case of Prisoners at the Palace, I think both the author and the publisher have done a good job of setting both the age range and content appropriately. Although as Michaela shows…someone will almost always disagree……
“What makes an historical book appropriate? Or as I was told recently, not appropriate?
I had made tentative plans to go to a bookfair in Westchester County, a wealthy suburb north of New York City. The PTA wanted me to do a presentation and sign books. I love doing this, so I agreed. The Principal and the Bookfair chairperson would read the book and make a final decision. I just heard that they have decided against me and The Prisoners in the Palace. Although they will sell my book, they don’t feel comfortable with the content for all students in the middle school and they don’t want to appear to be promoting it.
Prisoners in the Palace is recommended for ages 12 and up. That was Chronicle Books’s (my fabulous publisher) decision and I completely endorsed it. The story is about two seventeen year olds, Princess Victoria and her maid/spy/friend Liza Hastings. The Princess’s romantic life is almost entirely in her head and her great love affair with Prince Albert is still four years away. Liza has a chaste romance where both parties have the best of intentions. There are hints that the Duchess of Kent (Victoria’s widowed mother) might be having an affair with her Comptroller of the Household, Sir John Conroy. There is a wholly untrue scandal about the Queen having an affair. And then there’s the sub-plot with the maid, Annie. Before the start of the book, Annie was dismissed preemptorially from Kensington Palace because of lewd behavior (this was a tidbit I found in the historical record). When we meet her several months later, she is a prostitute – a common fate of servants who were fired without a “character” or recommendation. There are hints that Sir John may have “had his way with her.” I don’t want to give away anymore – but those are the basics. For a generation raised on Gossip Girl, Twilight, The Jersey Shore and even the Disney Family Secret Life of an American Teenager, this seems pretty tame, doesn’t it?
The Bookfair Chairperson told me that the Annie sub-plot was the issue that gave the school pause. (I was a little confused that Annie being taken advantage of was objectionable but that she was to be commended for keeping the baby – but that’s a political discussion that has no place here!) They thought it was too much for their youngest readers (this would be sixth grade).
Let me be clear – this bookfair had not made a firm commitment yet. The bookfair chairperson who wrote to me couldn’t have been more gracious. She personally enjoyed the book and didn’t consider anything in it to be gratuitous. I responded in a like manner – I appreciated her thoughtful comments, my next book would be solidly middle grade and perhaps I could visit next year.
But I’m worried. If this novel isn’t appropriate, what is? Prisoners in the Palace does tackle the powerlessness of women in the 1830’s. It was a sad and undeniable fact that young women servants were completely at the mercy of the men of the household. Liza, my heroine, is a recent orphan without any means of support. Her situation can’t much more precarious. As a child, even the future ruler of Great Britain, Victoria has zero control over her life. Annie is a cautionary tale for Liza and Liza’s role is to make sure that the future Teen Queen knows a little something about the real life outside the palace walls. How can this not be a good message for kids, twelve and up to learn? Especially since they learn it in context of a well-researched story that paints a portrait of early Victorian England?
I have two daughters, one fourteen and one twelve. They were always in my mind when I wrote. Frankly, I’m a bit of a prude and I’m not interesting in writing something that I have to “talk about” with the kids. There are many authors out there who write this kind of book well, and I’d much rather “talk about those books” with my girls. I’d rather that my readers talked history and a good story.
To see if I’ve been disinvited anyplace else, please visit my website, www.michaelamaccoll.com“
Thanks to Chronicle Books (one of my favorite publishers due to their unique releases and attention to detail) readers can use the promotion code PRISONER at Chronicle Books and get 25% off plus free shipping on their very own copy of Prisoners at the Palace. One lucky winner will receive a copy by simply leaving a comment below with their e-mail address. US/Canada addresses only. Giveaway ends on November 12th at midnight EST. Good luck to all!
You can also see other reviews from the Blog Tour of Prisoners in the Palace & other features here.