'Swordbird' writer's imagination soars'Swordbird' writer's imagination soars
By PATRICIA CHARGOT • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • May 13, 2008
Nancy Yi Fan, 14, would love to wing her way to the Beijing Summer Olympics.
The Yak imagines her flying there like Swordbird, the mythical hero of her two popular novels, "Swordbird" and "Sword Quest."
Nancy loves being part of Chinese celebrations.
"In China, when you go places, everyone is always laughing and smiling," said Nancy, who lives in Florida with her parents.
"But my schedule is really busy. I don't know if I can make it. But I'm so proud and happy that Beijing is hosting the Olympics. Everyone is looking forward to that. Did you know that many kids in China are named after the Olympics?"
The Yak did not. In China, thousands of kids have been named Aoyun (Aw-YOON), which is Chinese for "Olympics," said Nancy.
"I'm excited about all the things they're building, especially the main stadium. It's nicknamed Bird's Nest because the outside steel structure has irregular crisscrossing like a bird's nest."
Birds definitely are Nancy's favorite animals. She has three pet birds, Crackleclaw, Kibbles and Plap. And guess what? "In the Chinese zodiac, there's only one bird, a rooster -- and I'm a rooster," said Nancy, who was born in 1993.
Nancy spent her early years in Beijing, in northern China, and two years on Hainan Island, in southern China, before moving to the United States at age 7.
In China, she liked to sprinkle breadcrumbs on her windowsill "because I enjoyed watching a line of ants come and carry them away," she wrote in an e-mail.
"One day, I was reading a picture book when I heard scuffling sounds near my open window. I turned and saw a little sparrow perched on the windowsill. It was eating the crumbs! I was so close that I could see the patterns of brown and white around its black eyes."
Later, she moved to upstate New York and explored the wildlife there.
"After school, I'd dump my backpack in my room and run outside. Fields of wild grass, chest high, grew on one slope of a hill. Their sweet scent was at times dizzying and I had to squint my eyes through all the dazzle of flowers.
"There were no words to express what I felt. Here it was just me and nature. It was as if nature had set up a special game for me, but I had to find out the rules myself. Sometimes it would be a quest to find the source of a stream. Other times it would be scavenging for blackberries or identifying birds. But most of the time, I sat under a tree, listening to them breathe softly, and pondering about fantasy stories."Nancy’s walks taught her “patience and calm” and “to try to find something extraordinary in everything that is mundane,” she said, adding:“Now, I often think back on those days of rambling in the forest for guidance and inspiration.”After finishing fifth grade — and the first draft of “Swordbird” — Nancy moved back to China. She stayed for two years.In Bejing, she polished her novel and sent it to an American editor after her finding her e-mail address online. “We didn’t even know she was trying to find a publisher until we received an international call from HarperCollins!” said her father, laughing.
Last fall, after translating “Swordbird” into Chinese, Nancy returned to China for a book tour. Her first stop was at a Beijing elementary school.“Because the student body there was half-Chinese and half-foreign, I presented in both Chinese and English,” she said. “For me, it was great to be back in Beijing after nearly half a year, and to be talking to Chinese kids. I just had to get a Beijing 2008 Olympics shirt and a sampling of Peking duck (delicious!) before I left for Shanghai.”In Shanghai, she saw “a magnetic levitation train whirl by floating on magnets, which was pretty cool,” and gave another talk at a high school.“All the students were clapping thunderously when I finished,” she said.But it hasn’t gone to her head. “She’s worked very hard,” said her father. “When she writes, she’s totally involved in her world. If you call her name, she will not answer. She is doing what she likes.”Yak fact: Peking duck is named for Peking, the old name for Beijing. It has three courses: first, the crispy duck skin, rolled in a pancake, then roasted meat followed by a broth made from the bones.
More on Nancy's writing
Like all kids, author Nancy Yi Fan loves movies. Her favorites are “Happy Feet” and “Ice Age.”“But I’m really more of a book person,” the 14-year-old author told the Yak recently.“I read lots of books. I go to the library even week and carry a stack back.”(Her favorite book is “Charlotte’s Web.)Like the Yak, Nancy reads for pleasure, but also to do research for her stories. She’s written two best-selling novels, “Swordbird” and “Swordquest,” both set in make-believe forests inhabited by birds that talk, drink acorn tea and sometimes have to fight evil invaders.“Swordquest,” the second book, was a prequel to her first. But Nancy may not be done writing about birds. She’s thinking about a third novel with some of the same characters.“It may be a sequel to “Sword Quest” but still a prequel — something set in the middle of “Swordquest” and “Swordbird,” time-wise, he said. “I guess by and by I’ll try to write about humans.”In yakking with her, the Yak realized he and Nancy have something else in common: they use music to write, but in different ways.“I like listening to classical music,” said Nancy. “It relaxes me. It’s easy to listen and write and the music has good rhythm. The rhythm gets into the words.”(The Yak hums softly when he writes. He didn’t even realize he was doing it until one day, a friend said: “You’re doing it again.” It’s hard to stop and it’s harmless, right? And the Yak agrees: It does help with rhythm.)Nancy also has a second writing aid: drawing.“I love drawing,” she said. “It’s like acting something out. I draw out scenes, and it helps me organize. What is the logic – near to far, up and down? Drawing helps make my thoughts flow.”For example, mapping the home territories of the various bird species in her books is a good way to figure out how they cold best escape if attacked. How far away do the attackers live? How might they be vulnerable to a counter-attack?Nancy draws inspiration from many sources, including her childhood in China and her nature adventures.“I’m inspired by the Chinese ghost stories my grandmother used to tell me and bits of Chinese culture,” she said.So she’s trying hard to hold onto that culture while she’s far away from home.“I think I brought all my Chinese textbooks with me,” said Nancy, who is in ninth grade.“I think it’s very important to keep my culture, to speak my language. I received a letter from Jackie Chan, the martial arts star. He said he was really happy, really glad to hear that I had kept my Chinese culture.”(Chan is a famou Chinese actor whose many Kung Fu movies are well-known in the United States and around the world.) Nancy said she spoke almost no English when she first moved to the United States at age seven.“I could say, ‘Hello, how are you?’ ’’ she said.But her inability to communicate had an upside.“She was lonely,” said her father. “Not being able to speak, she read a lot of books.”Now, she speaks and writes beautifully in English and it’s easy to make new friends.“Like now, if I’m speaking English, it’s very strange sometimes. I can think in English and Chinese. I can switch over to either side and I don’t have to do any translating. Right now, I’m learning some French.”In reading “Swordbird,” the Yak also thought he detected a hint of Native American influence — and he was right! Nancy said that before writing about it, she had learned about the life of the early Iroquois Indians, who were well-known to the British and French settlers. (The Iroquois Nation still exists today and has six Iroquois tribes, including the Mohawks and Seneca.)“I learned about the Great Spirit, which I thought was a good name for the Creator,” she said. “And they had a lot of animal tales.”When Nancy isn’t writing, her busy schedule includes keeping up with fan mail, practicing martial arts — a type of Kung Fu that uses swords — and studying for the SATs. For more about Nancy and her books, visit http://www.swordbird.googlepages.com/.