Friday, April 20, 2007

Area girl a hit novelist at 13

Gainesville Sun
Area girl a hit novelist at 13
Sun staff writer
February 18. 2007 6:01AM

Spare time is scarce these days for Nancy Yi Fan.In addition to the typical homework and chaos of middle school, the Alachua County 13-year-old is working on her second novel and promoting her first one, "Swordbird," which debuted late last month at No. 10 on The New York Times best-seller list for children's books.Nancy won the book deal with HarperCollins for her first novel without an agent, by e-mailing her manuscript to the publishing house's slush pile - an accomplishment most adult writers only dream of."This is extremely rare," said Phobe Yeh, an editorial director at HarperCollins Children's Books and Nancy's editor. "I've been in publishing for 20 years, and I've never published a child author who's written a novel before. Kids like to write poems and short stories, but a full-length novel is something different. To be able to stick with the same characters and stay focused during the revision process - it's not something most kids are able to do. So yeah, she's pretty special."It started with a dream.When Nancy was 10 and living in Syracuse, N.Y., she had a vivid dream about birds. The dream echoed many of the things going on in her life at the time, from walks in the woods of upstate New York to the attack on the World Trade Center, which she had visited just before 9-11."Those thoughts all whirled up into a dream about cardinals and blue jays in old-fashioned clothing, fighting, and a magical white bird," Nancy said. "I woke up and turned the dream into a story about peace and freedom."For the next two years, Nancy scribbled her thoughts about the book into a small notebook she carried with her everywhere. She transposed and organized those thoughts at her computer at night.When Nancy had written and rewritten the manuscript into what she describes as an "OK draft" - "writers are perfectionists," Nancy said - she e-mailed it to several publishing executives along with a note introducing herself, including her age.Jane Friedman, president and chief executive officer of HarperCollins, was among those executives. Friedman passed the manuscript to HarperCollins' Children's Books, where it fell on Yeh's desk."I certainly knew that she was 12 at the time she sent it in, and I admit that the idea that someone her age could do something like that was quite fascinating to me," Yeh said. "But just evaluating this as a work of writing, it was really, really good. It was exciting, there were interesting characters, there were some very funny bits, it was a great adventure, she had a great good-versus-evil theme, it had a wonderful hero and she had a wonderful way with description. I have to say that I was very, very impressed with the book on many levels."When she started the editing process, Yeh said she was even more impressed."She was a consummate professional," Yeh said. "Oftentimes, I would give her advice on one thing, and she would apply it to everything else she was doing. . . . Later on, we were talking about another part and she said, 'Oh, I had to change that part, because I had that bird on a cliff, but that's not its habitat.' I didn't ask her to do that. This is something that adult authors don't always do."Nancy was born in China, and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 7. She has lived in Alachua County with her parents and three budgies, pet birds that are similar to parakeets, since last fall.Nancy said starting with the day HarperCollins returned her e-mail, the publishing process has been as surreal as the fantasy forest she created in "Swordbird.""It took a few days for the actual impact of it to sink in," Nancy said. "When it finally did, I just ran about, leaping and yelling. My birds chirped along."In early February, Nancy visited bookstores and schools in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Syracuse, N.Y., on a promotional tour that included an appearance on "The Martha Stewart Show." Nancy said she loved talking to other children about the book, and giggled when she described the early flights and exhausting days."It was really cold up there, especially in Chicago," Nancy said. "When I was writing, I felt like my hand just froze in place."Yeh said she first met Nancy in person on the tour - their previous conversations had been via telephone or e-mail. She said the 13-year-old was typically professional and precocious, but also pleasingly childlike."When she was in New York City, we went to the Central Park Zoo, and she got so excited about all the random birds flying around," Yeh said. "She said, 'I can hear a cardinal singing,' and then went and named all the birds. Even though all these cool things were happening - she went on 'The Martha Stewart Show,' she was in Chicago and Washington and New York - I think the highlight for her was seeing all these birds at the Central Park Zoo."Nancy's life won't be quieting down anytime soon. In addition to starting high school next year, she's translating "Swordbird" into her first language for its upcoming release in China, and is working on the first book's prequel, "Quest.""We're hoping - hoping - for winter 2008," Yeh said. "She's working on it now - after she gets her homework done, of course."


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