With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Published by HarperTeen on May 7th, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
“The world is a turntable that never stops spinning; as humans we merely choose the tracks we want to sit out and the ones that inspire us to dance.”
I read The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo in January and I instantly put her on my list of authors to watch out for whenever they have a new release. Acevedo is able to portray some of the strongest human emotions through a simple sentence. And I’m in awe of how she does it!
With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago’s life as a teen mom in her senior year. After she got pregnant during her freshman year, her life has been about making the tough decisions to do right by her daughter and her abuela. Her safe space has always been the kitchen. She’s an unstoppable force there because she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks.
Even though she has dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that she can’t sacrifice her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she thinks she has to play by, once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.
One thing that remains the same between The Poet X and With the Fire is that Acevedo’s prose is beautiful. Her writing has a lyrical quality to it. It’s magical. She can convey so much in so few words. She makes me melt with her nuanced and engaging sentences. She does fall into the trap of some typical YA phrases that we make fun of all the time on the internet. But for the most part, it didn’t really bother me. I could overlook it because there were so many other great phrases she wrote.
With the Fire is exactly what I’m talking about when it comes to representation. It never feels like Acevedo is writing in these characters or storylines to earn “diversity points.” Everything comes naturally and is integral to the story. These characters are fully developed and they never become stereotypes.
For example, Emoni is Afro-Latina and a teen mom. She never apologizes for her ethnicity and she actively is pursuing her passion beyond being a mom. She fought to complete her education and is focusing on successfully co-parenting with Tyrone. Angelica, Emoni’s BFF, recently came out and is navigating her first serious relationship. But she’s never reduced to her sexuality. She is actively working on becoming a graphic designer.
Apart from the characters themselves, I greatly enjoyed reading the relationships in all aspects of Emoni’s life. They felt rich, alive, and complex — like most relationships in our lives are! I personally loved the scenes with Abuela. It’s kind of rare to read about a child growing up with their grandparent as their primary guardian. Not only is Abuela a parent, but she’s also a character with her own personality. She’s never wrapped up in only caring for Emoni and Emma.
We even got a very brief encounter between Emoni and Tyrone’s mother and you could immediately feel the tension between the two. But it felt like we knew everything we had to in that one moment. And we subsequently saw that relationship change throughout the book by proxy of other characters.
This also goes for Emoni and her baby’s father. There’s often an emphasis on how much better it is for your child if the parents stay together. But I admire that Acevedo showed that there will always be a certain kind of relationship there because of the baby. But there is a successful way to co-parent without animosity once you establish a clear line of communication.
And thank the lord! We got a YA novel that had a romance in the story, but it wasn’t the main focus. Emoni found a person who willingly and easily accepted her and everything that comes with her. Malachi was never judgmental or rude about Emoni’s situation. It might seem too out of the realm of possibility, but these two characters were very mature for their age.
What was the main focus? Emoni’s passion for cooking! It’s hard not to get hungry when reading this book. Acevedo’s rich and vibrant phrasing made it so I could smell and taste every dish that Emoni made! Every time she described what ingredient would go best to change up the dish, I could instantly see why.
Emoni gets fulfillment and satisfaction from cooking that adds so much more light and happiness to her life. I liked how we got to see that talent doesn’t immediately equal success. She still had to work hard to impress several chefs so she could show them that she was worth the investment of their time and energy.
Now the only reason why I didn’t give it a 5 bubble tea rating was because the story felt too saccharine. There wasn’t really a conflict. The stakes were never that high. And even though she did struggle a little bit, she ultimately achieved everything she wanted to. She really got to have her cake and eat it too.
But overall, I did really like reading this. The short quick chapters kept my attention and I loved the separation of the novel into three parts that were marked with a recipe from Emoni. I can’t wait to see what else Acevedo has in store for us!
And can we take one final moment to appreciate the book cover? It’s simply stunning! My compliments to the chef *chef kiss*