The Firework-Maker's Daughter
by Philip Pullman
published by Arthur A. Levine Books
"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." So begins Philip Pullman's delightful tale The Firework-Maker's Daughter. Before long, the reader meets a talking elephant, a loyal servant who saves the day with magical water, the great Fire-Fiend who holds the secret to becoming a master firework-maker, a bumbling thief and his merry men, and a spunky heroine who won't take no for an answer. Told with all the elements of a rousing traditional tale, The Firework-Maker's Daughter takes readers on Lila's journey as she discovers the secret to firework-making, the one thing her father has refused to tell her. Her quest for the secret sends him to prison but her talent as a firework-maker (with a little help from the talking elephant!) sets him free.
Study the chart below to see some of the characteristics common to traditional literature. From this chart, we recognize that The Firework-Maker's Daughter is a modern fairy tale, in other words, a tale that has its roots in traditional literature. Find examples from the book for each of the elements listed below. Then discuss why Pullman, a modern author, would return to story elements of long ago. Look at other books by Pullman such as Clockwork, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife to see what elements of traditional literature can be found there.
hero sets off helps someone less fortunate
receives magical help
wishes come true after overcoming obstacles
returns to safety
lives happily everafter
repetition of events
oral quality retains flavor of country
youngest often wins over oldest
hard work, persistence and courage are rewarded
Modern fairy tales, while paying homage to their traditional roots, go beyond traditional literature by adding new twists. In particular, females in modern fairy tales generally play a much stronger role than in traditional tales and references to current time often are mixed with the long ago world of kings, magic, and quests of daring. How does Pullman mix the old with the new in this book? In particular, pay attention to Lila's thoughts on marriage and working found in the first chapter, and to the language plays found in the last chapter.
Because Lila possessed talent, courage, and luck (the Three Gifts) she was awarded the royal sulphur, the Fire-Fiend's term for wisdom. Without this wisdom, she would never be a master firework-maker. Reread page 97 to see what wisdom she gained. Why will this wisdom make her a master firework-maker? Themes are supposed to reveal a significant truth. Is what Lila learned a significant truth?
To better understand the characters in this tale, consider the following questions:
Lalchand tells Chulak that "You need talent and dedication and the favor of the gods before you can become a firework-maker" (p. 9). What does Lila do to reveal she has those qualities?
Chulak fills the role of the loyal servant who, though he means well, often nearly bungles things. What are examples of Chulak's misdeeds and good deeds? Is he a likable character? Why is he so willing to humiliate his friend Hamlet, the elephant, by using him as a billboard? Why does he go to Frangipani to tell her how Hamlet feels? In the beginning of the book Chulak is plotting to escape to India but at the end, he is happy to have his job of being Hamlet's keeper back. What causes the change in Chulak?
Several times throughout the tale Hamlet saves the day. What are some of those times? How would the story have been different without Hamlet? Was it important that Hamlet's ability to talk was a secret?
Rambashi is Chulak's uncle. In what ways are Rambashi and Chulak similar? Rambashi and his band of helpers provide much of the comic relief throughout the book.
What would have changed the most if Pullman had not included Rambashi, the plot of the book or the tone of the book? How do the characters Dr. Puffenflasch, Colonel Sparkington, Signor Scorcini, and the reference to Luciano Elephanti help set the tone for the book?
Modern fairy tales, like traditional literature, focus more on a series of obstacles a hero or heroine must overcome rather than conflicts to be resolved. What are the obstacles that Lila faces? Which obstacles does she overcome with magical intervention? Which ones does she overcome with her wit? In traditional literature, the hero gets his or her wish after overcoming obstacles. Does Lila get her wish?
- As Lalchand talks with Chulak, he explains the Three Gifts saying that the first one is talent, the second one courage or determination, and the third one luck. He says that "all are equally important, and two of them are no good without the third" (p. 95). Do you agree? If so, what are the implications of this in The Firework-Maker's Daughter, and in other contexts both in fiction and in real life?
- Razvani tells Lila, "Fire burns away all our illusions. The world itself is all illusion. Everything that exists flickers like a flame for a moment, and then vanishes. The only thing that lasts is change itself" (p. 62). If fire is what burns away our illusions, what is fire symbolizing? Do you agree with his notion that the only thing that lasts is change itself?
- Often modern fairy tales mix the old with the new through language plays and references to things that would not have been around "once upon a time" ago. Reread the final chapter (p. 77-97) looking for this mix of the old with the new. Be sure to look at the change in the name of the tunes "Down by the Old Mill Stream" to "Down by the Old Irrawaddy" and "Save the Last Dance for Me" to "Save the Last Mango for Me." Use a dictionary to check the meanings of Irrawaddy and mango. Why are those better words for the songs than "old mill stream" and "dance?"
- Do some research on fireworks. How are fireworks really made? Why is it sensible that The Firework-Maker's Daughter be set somewhere in the Far East?
Other books to compare and contrast
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, by J. K. Rowling
Midnight Magic, by Avi
The Wild Hunt, by Jane Yolen
Other books by the author
The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
The Ruby in the Smoke
Shadow in the North
The Tiger in the Well
The Tin Princess
About the author
Philip Pullman, a former teacher and now a novelist and playwright, began his career as a young adult novelist with the award-winning The Ruby in the Smoke (published in 1985 in England and 1987 in the United States). Since then he's delighted readers with his complex and absorbing plots and compelling characters. Whether writing Victorian thrillers, realistic fiction, or fantasy, Pullman time and again proves himself one of the great writers of our time. He lives in Oxford, England, with his wife and children.
Discussion guide written by Kylene Beers, Assistant Clinical Professor of Reading at the University of Houston, Texas, editor of the NCTE journal Voices From the Middle, and co-editor of Into Focus: Understanding and Creating Middle School Readers.