Philip Pullman is best known for his trilogy, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, three of the finest books written for children, fantasy or otherwise. But he is also the author of several other books, including the entertaining Sally Lockhart Series for teens, set in 1872 London, and this wonderful fairy tale-like gem.
"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," is how the story begins. Motherless, Lila grows up in her father's workshop and naturally learns his trade. But, when she wants to learn his art and be considered an equal, she is met with her father's dismay. Despite her skill and talent, he had always assumed that she would marry when she came of age. Pullman writes, "Each of them had quite the wrong idea about things, and they were both alarmed to find it out." Furious with her father, Lila seeks the company of her friend Chulak, who is the personal servant of the King's white elephant, Hamlet. Hamlet also happens to be able to speak, but only for Chulak and Lila. It is Chulak who leads Lalchand to tell him the final secret of firework-making that Lila so desperately wants to know.
Through trickery and misfortune, Lila, Chulak and Lalchand all end up in very dangerous circumstances. Along the way they encounter a very funny pirate king, taxi boat driver, chicken farmer, restauranteur, minstrel, named Rambashi, who also turns out to be Chulak's Uncle. They also come face to face with a benevolent Goddess of the Lake and her cousin, Razvani the great fire-fiend. The story culminates with a fireworks competition that could cost Lalchand his life. Pitted against Dr. Puffenflasch, Signor Scorcini and Colonel Sparkington, Lila is not hopeful. But she and Lalchand work tirelessly to prepare and invent a few new fireworks that just might help them to win.
Pullman does well in creating strong, intelligent, fearless female characters in his books and Lila is no exception. The descriptions of the landscape of "a thousand miles ago" are rich with detail and a few British phrases and words thrown in here and there for a touch of colonialism. If your child likes this book, suggest Scarecrow and His Servant and Count Karlstein by Philip Pullman. They are both about 60 pages longer than The Firework-Maker's Daughter, but worth it.
Here is cover art for other versions of this book, which has also been adapted for the stage!