Whenever you think of Philip Pullman, you will probably think of his ‘Dark Materials’ trilogy, three amazing books. But his other books can often disappear into the shadows of his pinnacle masterpiece.
This short book, for a younger age bracket, is one of my long standing favourites. It was one of the first stories I used when training, to teach from. It, once upon a time before the introduction of APP, fit snuggly into the Year 5 Literacy topic of stories from other cultures. Not, strictly written as another culture, The Firework-maker’s Daughter does a beautiful job of amalgamating aspects from a myriad of other worlds.
It tells the tale of Lila, the title character, who is desperate to be a true firework maker. But constrained by her gender, her father refuses to tell her the true path to heart’s desire, condemning her to the future fate of becoming a ‘girly-girl’ and being married well. This does not suit her wild nature and runs away to seek the fire-fiend, to learn the final lessons of her craft.
Lila’s best friend and similarly rebellious companion, Chulak, discovers that Lila is putting herself into grave, grave danger and follows her, but not before liberating the white elephant he cares for. But his careless act puts Lila’s father in the frame for the sacred animals theft, and he is arrested and sentenced to death. Can Chulak rescue Lila in time? Can the pair of them, along with the talking white elephant, save Lila’s father from execution? And, ultimately, can Lila learn the secrets to become a Firework-maker?
It is a very well thought out book, gripping from the first line, “A thousand miles ago, in a country east of the jungle and south of the mountains . . .” It paints vivid images of wild and wonderful lands, characters with real emotion and plenty of twists and turns. There are Goddesses, demons, magic, mystery, some truly entertaining pirates and, for the girls, a little bit of a love affair (no, not Lila and Chulak but an unconventional yet entertaining romance nonetheless!). Lila is a strong female lead but her tom-boyish tendencies still make it fully engaging for boys.
From a teaching point of view it is a gem. As I understand it, Philip Pullman rarely, if ever, gives permission for reproduction or allows his work to be attributed to ready-written schemes and lesson plans. This is his prerogative, but it should not put you off trying to utilise this brilliant work. The books are relatively inexpensive compared to many of its bracket, and a class set (or half set) should be easy to come by. As for the lessons, one read through yourself is all you will need for your brain to be over flowing with ideas.
Some simple suggestions from my own experiences could include:
- Story openings;
- analysing language;
- Writing ‘missing chapters’ (The structure of the book allows you to be able to imagine parallel story lines or back-stories);
- Detailed description work;
- Comparing fictional ‘cultural’ work with poetry, traditional stories from other cultures and non-fiction.
- How a story should be structured.
- Diary extracts and reports (pretty much any genre of writing can be inspired by this work);
And these are just a few of the Literacy areas that could be covered. The scope for cross-curricular or thematic work is huge; the art work produced could be exceptional; history and geography units would fit in well (you could look at China, India, island living, volcanoes . . . the list goes on); Science could also fit, in particular a friction investigation inspired by Lila’s climb up the volcanic mountain, or reversible or irreversible changes based on the magic water from the lake; basically this book is rich with inspiration and a thoroughly engaging lesson ideas. It would be quite easy to spend a full half term using this as the base.
Its the developing of the lessons and the units of work that I miss, I love linking everything together and making it a delightful experience for all involved in my classroom. I enjoy allowing the children a chance to enjoy their education while they can; we all know the damage that can be caused by secondary education. If I could do this aspect alone every day, I would never have lost my motivation or drive. But sadly, as it is, all the dross that goes along with teaching ultimately stunts the spirit. When the spark is muted in the teacher how are they ever to try and create it in a child. our education system needs to have a good long look in the mirror. Something is badly wrong. I desperately want to feel that flame again, feel the burning passion I have for the job, but I just don’t. And until I do, I shouldn’t be in the classroom full time – when you stop caring, you need to have a care and stop.
But I will always think fondly on this book as with it comes the memory of that young ambitious teacher who thought she could change the world. She’s still there, somewhere. And there are so many others in this country, but to embrace them entirely, the paper pile and the bureaucracy needs to lessened, dramatically. Ultimately, we are all children, we just want to enjoy our time here before it’s too late.