‘A thousand miles ago, in a country east of the jungle and south of the mountains, there lived a Firework-Maker called Lalchand and his daughter Lila.’ Lila’s mother died when Lila was very young, so she has spent much time in her father’s workshop. More than anything else Lila wants to be a Firework-Maker too; her father has taught her how to make many different ones but there is still much for her to learn. Lalchand, however, isn’t keen because she’s a girl – he wants his daughter to be married more than anything else, and he refuses to tell her the final secret of his trade.
Lila’s best friend Chulak, servant of Hamlet, the Royal White Elephant, tricks Lalchand into revealing the secret to him, and he passes it on to Lila. Anyone who wants to become a firework-maker must go to the volcano Mount Merapi to seek the Royal Sulphur from Ravzani the Fire Fiend. Lila realises that her father doesn’t want her to be a firework-maker, so she runs away and sets off to Mount Merapi alone. But unfortunately Chulak didn’t discover another vital part of the secret and now Lila is heading for great danger. She should be taking with her ‘the three gifts’, and have some magic water to protect her from the Fire Fiend’s flames. Lalchand and Chulak, with the help of Hamlet the White Elephant, have to try and rescue her before it’s too late.
Lalchand, however, is spotted helping Chulak and Hamlet to escape their duties to go looking for Lila. He is arrested and threatened with execution; the only way to avoid this is for he and Lila to win an international firework competition against the best firework-makers in the world. They must put their disagreement behind them and work together as never before.
The Firework-Maker’s Daughter started life as a play which Philip Pullman wrote for his pupils while he was teaching in a middle school in Oxford. Pullman loves fireworks (he had his stepfather’s ashes scattered by launching them in forty rockets in 2002) and incorporated them into a story inspired by some stage designs he had seen in a library for a play called The Elephant of Siam, or The Fire-Fiend by nineteenth-century dramatist William Moncrieff. Later Pullman revised the story and turned it into a book, and in doing so ‘realised the real meaning of the story . . . I realised I was telling a story about the making of art’ (essay by Pullman on the Sheffield Theatres website). It was freshly adapted for the stage by Stephen Russell and performed at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in March 2003 under the direction of Paul Hunter and Hayley Carmichael.
The Firework-Maker’s Daughter is one of Philip Pullman’s books for younger readers which he refers to as his fairy tales. He thinks ‘that fairy tales . . . are ways of telling us true things without labouring the point. They begin in delight, and they end in wisdom. But if you start with what you think is wisdom, you’ll seldom end up with delight – it doesn’t work that way round. You have to begin with fun’ (essay by Pullman on the Sheffield Theatres website). This delightful little story certainly is great fun but is, like many of Pullman’s other books, looking at the tricky business of growing up and finding wisdom. Lila and her father have such different expectations but they eventually learn to appreciate each other in a new way. Lila grows up through this adventure and discovers that in the making of all great art, you need talent, determination and some luck. It may not be earth-shattering wisdom, but The Firework-Maker’s Daughter is a children’s book after all, and one which communicates some important ideas in a fun way.