A fantasy novel about tribes of warring birds, written by a gifted 11-year-old girl who lives in the southern-most province of China, is to be published worldwide in English.
The young author, Nancy Yi Fan, won the extraordinary opportunity by simply emailing her manuscript to the chief executive of HarperCollins, Jane Friedman, at the publisher’s New York office.
Fan has since been hailed as a prodigy by her editors who will use her book in a new attempt to establish the firm in China . Her story, Swordbird, is an epic allegory about the struggle for peace and will be printed in this country in the new year. Those who have seen it talk about it as the product of a mind as imaginative as some of the greatest names in children’s writing.
Fan wrote the novel in response to learning of the war on terror, and it is described as ‘an action-packed tale of birds at war’, set in the once-peaceful Stone-Run Forest. It tells how local woodbird tribes, the Cardinals and the Blue Jays, find themselves pitted against each other in a search for precious food supplies – some of which have mysteriously gone missing. Fighting breaks out and an evil hawk, Turnatt, turns the tribes against each other as part of a plan to take over the forest. He enslaves captives from surrounding tribes and is forced to build an impregnable fortress in which to confine all the woodbirds.
Born in Beijing in 1993, Fan lived in New York with her parents from the age of seven, graduating ‘with excellence’ from an elementary school there in 2004. When she was in sixth grade, at the age of 11, she was taught about terrorism and the events of 9/11. That night, she explains, she had a startling dream all about birds at war and the next day she started writing Swordbird in her bedroom as a way of trying to convey her worries about violence in the world. She now lives back in China, on the beautiful Hainan Island with her parents and their three pet birds. The girl, now 13, is a compulsive writer and reader who spends most of her time in the library, but she also loves bird-watching and martial arts.
The hero of Swordbird is an escaped ‘slavebird’, Miltin, who leads the woodbirds once they learn of Turnatt’s strategy. The title refers to a legendarily heroic bird of peace. The Swordbird is the only one who can save the forest, so young birds Aska and Miltin fly off on a dangerous mission to find the Leasone gem. This stone, paired with an ancient song from the ‘Old Scripture’, will conjure Swordbird’s help. The story has been chosen to launch the publishing house’s new push into China.
This summer HarperCollins announced it would be publishing a series of Chinese works overseas, as well as bringing out Swordbird in the United States, the UK and China and launching Cidian.cn, an online Collins English-Chinese dictionary.
The publishers also linked up with the Chinese People’s Literature Publishing House to collaborate on a scheme for both new and classical works by Chinese authors to be translated and published overseas. Initially, five classic Chinese titles will be published for the English-speaking market.
Commenting on the agreement at the time, Liu Yushan, president of the People’s Literature Publishing House, said, ‘It is our goal to enable people around the world to appreciate and enjoy works of Chinese literature.’
· Swordbird is published in the UK on 5 February 2007