I Will Be Fierce! – Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani, Roaring Book Press, 2019
I Will Be Fierce is a delightful story of intergenerational feminism and nurturing power. The young heroine wakes up in her dino pajamas and looks out her apartment window, determined to ensure that her world is safe. Her metaphor-laden mind creates magic, from colorful clothing which is “armor” to a backpack “treasure chest” and a menacing “many-headed serpent” which is really a big yellow school bus. No obstacle is too tough for her sense of self-esteem, and her secret weapon, a loving grandmother. The author’s simple statements and the illustrator’s bold colors and convincing expressions make for a believable journey into the perils of childhood, with a happy ending.
Before beginning her quest, the girl faces her grandmother, a picture of warmth with her grey hair, glasses, and star-covered sweater. Like a real fairy godmother, she delicately touches the girl’s chin, a gesture which empowers her the rest of the day. Some of the girl’s potential adversaries are a bit physically scary, like the five dogs straining on their leash while their dogwalker seems barely able to restrain them.
No problem; even though the girl looks frightened, her resolve will not fail her: “I will take on the monsters that stand in my way.” Other children, some taller than she, are “giants,” but their appearance at the bus stop seems minimally difficult. When she arrives at school, the giants have multiplied, requiring a more affirmative and broader approach: “I will chart my own course.”
From here on, every challenge becomes the basis for a new narrative. The kindly librarian is the “Guardian of Wisdom.” It doesn’t seem likely that she would refuse the girl access to her “Mountain of Knowledge,” but the sign does say that borrowers are limited to five books. Five will not be enough for the girl to decipher the secrets of the universe, something which she definitely needs to do. In art class, her chosen subject is less typical than those of the other girls, but, more importantly, her face glows with self-assurance as she stands back from her portrait of a young girl on a turtle: “I will break away from the ordinary.”
Lunchroom is where the going gets tough. For the first time in the book, the girl’s individuality is not just a question of taste or imagination. She notices one girl, visibly sad, sitting by herself, while a crowded table of other students looks on. Some look surprised that the fierce girl is about to instigate change. Two children look nasty, one averts her eyes, and a boy with glasses seems to disbelieve the scene. “I will stand up for my beliefs” is the core of the book, as the girl and her friend approach their lonely classmate. After this everything seems easy whether dancing in the rain speaking in front of the class, or heading home on the bus with a new friend.
Being a hero is tiring. A nap on her grandmother’s lap is a return to the source of energy that enabled her quest, one which will begin again the next day. The bookended images of grandmother and granddaughter ground the story in reality. Children need support in order to stand up and not just stand by. Bea Birdsong and Nidhi Chanani have created a realistic role model, with her flowing black hair and rainbow colored jumper, whose moral compass and rich imagination are up to the task, with a calm and constant older female to set her on her course.