School Library Journal Talks to 13-year-old Author, Nancy Yi Fan
SLJ Talks to 13-year-old Author, Nancy Yi Fan
by Joan Oleck -- School Library Journal, 5/30/2007
It's not often that a 12-year-old e-mails a manuscript to HarperCollins and sees her book in print a year later. But that's exactly what happened for Nancy Yi Fan, 13, author of Swordbird (HarperCollins, 2007), the tale of how squabbling blue jays and cardinals, with help from a mystical white bird, unite to defeat a tyrannical hawk.
What's even more impressive is that Fan, who moved to the U.S. with her parents in 2001, has only spoken English for six years. (She also spent grades six and seven back in China.) SLJ spoke with the Florida-based eighth grader about her amazing achievement, how she's become an inspiration to other kids, and the "prequel" that's now in the works.
What's it like to be 13 and have a book at your age?
It feels like flying. Walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on the shelf gives me a really weird and funny feeling. Or sometimes I go to school, and a classmate will say, "Oh you're the one who wrote the book." Yet I feel kind of normal, too; it's something special, like a hobby. And I know I'm a young writer and have a long way to go. I'm working on my second book; it's called Sword Quest—it's a prequel to Swordbird. I think what I really enjoy—the greatest part of it—is I get to receive e-mails from other kids who tell me how I inspired them to write as well.
Where did your interest in birds come from?
I remember when I was in kindergarten, I used to run full-speed flapping my arms and jumping from low walls. I'm just amazed at their songs, their colors, their diversity.
I read that the story was inspired by the events of September 11.
The summer I finished second grade, I went to New York City for a vacation with my parents. I went to the observation deck of the World Trade Center. I remember it was a sunny day and it was windy on top. It was a startling contrast to what happened on 9/11; so many innocent people died. It made such a deep impression.
Then, in fifth grade I was reading about the Revolutionary War and still watching birds. So I had this weird dream in which cardinals and blue jays were wearing britches like in the Revolutionary War, and they were fighting because they'd been tricked. The dream was very vivid. I could hear the wings beating, and I also saw a great white magical bird with a sword. It's certainly not every day you see a bird with a sword! So when I woke up I wanted to turn it into a story. And because of 9/11 and the war, I wanted to express the importance of peace and freedom. Because birds are very peaceful creatures. When they defend territory, they usually solve problems by singing out their threats instead of fighting.
Is it true you sent this manuscript in to HarperCollins cold, without an agent?
I sent it to HarperCollins by e-mail. I sent it to the president and CEO of HarperCollins. I'm just a kid who believes hard work pays off. And the president and CEO was very surprised and passed it on to the president of the children's division and the children's book division and a nice lady told me they were going to look at it because they were interested. It was very, very surprising.
Did any adults help you along the way?
I thought I knew all about birds but then I discovered there are lots of species divided into subspecies. The autonomy of birds, their habits. So I went to my local library [the Onondaga County Public Library in Syracuse, NY] and the librarian was very helpful. She showed me lots of books, and after I checked them out, I loaded them onto a cart and pushed it out, and the librarian smiled. And other people thought it was very bizarre to see a kid pushing a cart full of books.
Do you have any messages for other kids trying to write?
I would tell them they should never give up writing. It's forever a blessing to be able to write. I would also tell them don't be afraid to try something and just go for it.
What are some of your hobbies?
One of my hobbies is martial arts, a branch [of martial arts] called swordplay. This connects to the swordplay in my book Swordbird. When I was writing Swordbird I found there were places in the battle scenes that could be a little smoother. That is when I went to China for two years. It's convenient in China to find a kung fu coach and you can find little light swords, and I asked the teacher if I could learn some moves. After a few weeks I could wave the sword about and knew the basics of swordplay.
What is Sword Quest about?
This is a story of how Swordbird and his friends went around the world to find a sword. Because [the book takes place] around the world there will be more bird species, not just North American species.