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Birds Convey a Teen Writer's Message of Peace to the World


Nancy Yi Fan is a fairly typical American teenager who loves birds, martial arts and writing. But she didn't learn English until she was seven and her family immigrated to the United States from China. Just a few years later, she wrote a book in English. Her first novel, Swordbird, became a best-seller. Faiza Elmasry tells us more about the young author, who has just published her second novel.

Nancy Yi Fan's family moved to the United States just a few months before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. One night shortly afterwards, she dreamed about a giant white bird trying to make peace among warring flocks of birds in a forest.

"When I woke up," she says, "I wanted to turn my dream into a story because I wanted to express the importance of peace and freedom."

It took her almost a year to finish her story, Swordbird.

"I went on line to look for e-mail addresses of people who worked in publishing houses," she recalls. "Then I e-mailed my manuscript off. I only hoped to receive advice on how to improve my writing, but you know, Swordbird got accepted for publication. I was lucky enough that one of the recipients was President Jane Friedman, CEO of Harper Collins [a major publishing house in the U.S.]."

Harper Collins CEO Jane Friedman remembers Yi Fan's e-mail. It was addressed: "Dear President Friedman."

"I started to read it, which is not something we usually do because we don't accept unagented manuscripts," Friedman recalls, "but I thought there was something here, really something here."

Something so special, says Friedman that she decided to give Nancy's story a chance.

"I sent it over to my children's division," she says. "They found it to be absolutely brilliant. We felt that we had a prodigy in our hands. We took on the book and the rest is history.

Nancy Yi Fan was 12 years old when Swordbird was published last year. Within weeks, it reached the top of the New York Times list of best-selling Children's Chapter Books.

Swordbird is a fantasy about warring birds. It shows how friendship and courage can overcome tyranny.

"Swordbird is about the cardinals and blue jays of Stone-Run Forest," Nancy says. "They have been tricked by an evil hawk named Turnatt. Once they realized the truth, they band together. They can't turn Turnatt away. So their last hope is to try to find the legendary Swordbird who is a hero, who helps others in need."

Recently, Yi Fan published her second novel, Sword Quest. A prequel to her first novel, it's set hundreds of years before Snowbird.

Yi Fan, who translated her first work into Chinese, says she finds inspiration in her cultural heritage.

"In Sword Quest, for example, I added a fortune teller who uses the yin and yang symbol and the fortune telling sticks to guide some of the characters to a destination," she says. "Also, the main antagonist in Sword Quest, Yin Soul, is a ghost. That's inspired by my grandmother's ghost stories about the spirits who stay in the crossroads and wait for people to cross the street. They try to get into your body."

Becoming a published author at such a young age, Yi Fan says, has affected her life in many ways.

"I think it trained me to think more logically," she says. "It helped my imagination and certainly tasted my determination, self-control and dedication. I discovered things like structure, preciseness of wording. Now when I write essays in school assignments, it's much easier for me."

Yi Fan says she writes to satisfy herself, entertain her readers, and more importantly, to convey her philosophy of life.

"I guess it could be expressed by Ewingerale, one of my characters," she says. "He sings a song in Sword Quest. It goes like this: 'Fate is wind, not a river. / The directions of wind can always change / But rivers shall flow the same. / No matter which way the wind shall blow / Dare to use your wings.'"

The youngest author ever published by Harper Collins hopes to continue writing. And Nancy Yi Fan says she will use her wings to go wherever her dreams take her.