Saturday 5 May 2007
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Telegraph Magazine

Flight of fantasy

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 27/01/2007
Page 1 of 3

Most novelists only dream of landing a global publishing deal at the first attempt. Nancy Yi Fan is 13, Chinese and writes in her second language. Lucie Young meets a literary prodigy and her very ambitious parents.

Americans like to think they have the market cornered in how to raise child geniuses. Educational programmes such as Baby Einstein, Learning Before Birth and the Mozart Effect are all popular with new parents. But the Chinese are equally driven, judging by the success of Nancy Yi Fan. Nancy, 13, is one of the youngest authors to have a novel published in America – an accomplishment that is all the more extraordinary as English is not her first language. She was born in China and Mandarin is her native tongue.

Nancy Yi Fan
Chick lit: Nancy Yi Fan with her pet budgies in the bedroom of her home in Florida. Her evening work schedule is posted on the wall

Nancy, whose first book, Swordbird, comes out in the UK next month, is the latest in a line of Chinese prodigies to conquer the West that has included the 13-year-old chess champion Pu Xiangzhi and the violinist Tang Yun, who at 13 starred in Chen Kaige's 2002 film Together with You.

Over a homecooked dinner of dumplings, tofu, egg and peppers in their hanky-sized apartment in Gainesville, Florida (where the Fans moved from China six months ago), Harvey Fan, 43, explains that it is no accident that his daughter is such a precocious talent. His plans for her greatness began even before she was born. 'Americans really care about their children, but in Beijing they go more crazy,' he says, as the Fans perch around the kitchen table on what appears to be plastic garden furniture.

By law, Chinese parents can have only one child (unless they produce twins) and they do everything in their power to ensure that their child develops to its fullest potential. 'I didn't buy a sofa,' Harvey says, looking at the plastic chairs in the spartan living-room. 'Luxury is not for me. I don't need to lie on a sofa. As long as we have enough money, it is for Nancy to buy books.' Turning to look at his wife, Lora, he continues, 'She is never complaining. My sister criticises me and says, "Why you not buy your wife beautiful clothes? You not so decent. You just wear cheap shirts and T-shirts. Why?" '

Nancy shows no evidence of being a spoilt child. She has little in her bedroom apart from her computer, a collection of moss and four-leaf clovers she gathered from the school playing fields, and a bookcase that holds about 50 books (half in Chinese, half in English). What she does have – in abundance – is confidence.


Sitting on a mattress on the floor, with her hair in a ponytail and glasses that make her look like a cross between Harry Potter's Chinese twin and Velma from Scooby-Doo, Nancy explains how she took two years to write Swordbird, and then did what every writer dreams of – she secured a publisher without even having an agent. 'I'd read a few books about how to get published and it was so complicated,' she says, rolling her eyes. She didn't want to waste money on postage, sending out lots of copies of her manuscript to book editors, so instead she simply e-mailed Swordbird to half a dozen of the most important sounding people at the leading publishing houses.

Jane Friedman, the CEO and president of HarperCollins, who frequently appears near the top of lists of America's most powerful women, receives dozens of emails every day from hopeful authors, but this one caught her eye. 'It was addressed to President Friedman and said it was from a 12-year-old Chinese girl, but it seemed very grown up,' Friedman says. 'I had my doubts that it was real.' Nevertheless she emailed Nancy immediately to let her know she was interested in her book. Within a month, Nancy had a deal.

Swordbird, like most classical children's fiction, involves a crusade of good against evil. In this case, the main protagonists are blue jays, robins and cardinal-birds that eat pies, play the piano, perform plays, dance, sail boats and tip-claw around the trees of the Stone-Run Forest. These small creatures are also expert swordsmen and defend themselves with an impressive array of blades against an evil hawk, Turnatt, who enslaves innocent birds in Fortress Glooming and tries to pit everyone against each other.

Birds are Nancy's passion. In a tiny cage in the living-room are perched Ambergold, Cyan and Tiger, her budgerigars. 'I got my first bird when I was in China. I called him Alphabet because I was learning the English alphabet at the time.' Keeping birds as pets is common in China but mostly among the elderly. 'They keep canaries, singing birds or nightingales in bamboo cages. It takes the place of golf or a newspaper,' she says.

Nancy spent her first seven years in Liaoning in north-east China, and Beijing. Lora and Harvey had already lost twins and didn't want to lose another child, so when Lora became pregnant for the second time she stayed in hospital for nearly a year. Harvey had a karaoke machine and recorded love songs to play to their unborn baby. 'I remember Moon River and Love Story,' Lora giggles. 'My husband said, "Eat all sorts of things so your child will be clever." '

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