Saga by 13-Year-Old Author Takes Wing
This story originally appeared in Children's Bookshelf on December 14, 2006
Inspired also by her deep love of birds and by readings and discussions about war in her social studies class, the fifth grader immediately began writing the saga that would become Swordbird. And, after finishing the manuscript, was resourceful enough to find a publisher for her fantasy adventure, due out from HarperCollins in February with a 50,000-copy first printing.
Fan began her novel while living near Syracuse, N.Y., where she and her family moved from their native China when the girl was seven, knowing almost no English. She was aware from the start that hers would be a long creative journey. "I knew this wouldn't be easy to write and that it was going to take a long time, because things like peace or freedom cannot be expressed in just a few words, since they are too deep," she says. "But I was optimistic and I put my best ideas into it. I didn't plan the story. I let it take me where it was going. I sometimes reached a dead end but I was lucky and was able to keep writing."
She reserved at least half an hour each day for writing and would sometimes venture into the bird-filled woods near her home. "I'd carry my binoculars and a notepad with me and write as I trekked," she explains. "I was always thinking about the book and worked on it in all of my spare time."
In addition to observing birds first-hand, the author researched various species' habits and habitats extensively through books and on the Internet, noting that "sometimes I checked out so many books from the library that I had to lug them home in a cart." And, when she decided to have her anthropomorphic bird characters fight with swords, the diligent writer even enrolled in a kung fu class to learn basic sword maneuvers so she could better describe these movements.
Fan also turned to the Internet to find a publisher for Swordbird. When she had completed a first draft, she went on-line and searched out e-mail addresses for publishing executives, including that of HarperCollins CEO Jane Friedman, whom the author deferentially calls "President Friedman," crediting her with "breathing life into Swordbird." Friedman passed along Fan's intriguing query and script to the children's division, where editorial director Phoebe Yeh became its editor.
"I began reading and knew immediately that this was very good," says Yeh. "I knew that a child had written the book and that was part of what caught my attention, yet the writing was truly top-notch and very imaginative. Other editors [here] also read the book and were very impressed."
By this time, the author and her family had returned to China, so Yeh e-mailed her there and then talked by phone to her and her parents in order to "make sure that they all understood what we would be asking of her, in terms of making revisions, and to find out if they really wanted to pursue this."
Fan describes her first reaction to the news that HarperCollins wanted to publish Swordbird as "very happy but surprisingly calm." But several days later it suddenly sank in and she recalls "running around the house wildly, which made my pet birds squawk. I gave them lots of extra bird feed that day."
Noting that Fan "is particularly gifted at creating characters and their back stories and at creating cliff-hanger endings to chapters—things some writers spend many books and many years learning," Yeh says that her line editing of the novel entailed addressing "pacing, motivation and standard things. Nancy's level of sophistication in her approach to writing was amazing. It is rare to find a child capable of her level of understanding of what you need to do to get it right."
Now 13 and living in Florida, where her father is a doctoral student, Fan will travel to New York City, Chicago and Washington in February to promote Swordbird. "I am excited to go to these big cities and tell people about my book, and I especially look forward to reading passages to others," she says.
Meanwhile, she has completed approximately half of a second novel that HarperCollins will publish: a prequel to Swordbird, tentatively titled Quest. And Fan anticipates more will follow, perhaps along similar plot lines. "I am sure that there will be more books as time goes on and more ideas pop into my head," she muses. "I believe that the forest world has a river of stories that flow without ending."