With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
You already know I’m a sucker for a good YA novel. Elizabeth Acevedo first came on my radar with the major success of her previous book, The Poet X, which blew up on #BookTwitter. Since then, she has literally sky rocketed to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List earning some major book awards along the way — she’s a National Book Award winner. She even does book recommendations on the Today Show. Sis is truly in her bag, and I am all the way here for it.
To the question I’m sure all of you have on your minds — “Well why haven’t you reviewed The Poet X then?” — I actually haven’t read it yet. *cringes* I know, I know, but I happened upon this book in a beautiful, new bookstore I discovered tucked away in the corner of a mall near me that has been teetering on the edge of collapse since I’ve lived here. The Poet X was probably there on the shelf too, but this wonderous store had a few signed first editions of With the Fire on High, and I just couldn’t pass it up. This might be worth a lot one day the way Acevedo is taking over!
With the Fire on High tells the story of a young, Afro-Puerto Rican woman named Emoni Santiago. The story opens by giving us the back story of how Emoni got pregnant her freshman year, and could have easily given us one-dimensional, young-Black-girl-in-the-projects-becomes-single-mother plot lines, but Acevedo crafts a beautiful story around identity, self-discovery, family, friendship and love all while breaking down a little bit of Puerto Rico’s colonial history and how it intertwines with the rest of the world. Emoni’s characterization is rich and vibrant. I appreciated the complexity and care with which she was written. She loves to cook, but it is framed as more than just a love for baking pies. The kitchen is where Emoni goes to when she is tired, stressed, confused — anytime she needs to be grounded. It is what connects her all the way from Philadelphia to North Carolina where her dead mother’s aunt sends her family recipies and even further down to Puerto Rico where her father lives. The way that Emoni cooks points to the way in which she is a literal representation of the intersection of so many identities: her mother was a Black American from North Carolina and her father is from Puerto Rico. When her mother dies giving birth to her, her father goes back to his homeland, leaving ‘Buela to handle the responsibility of raising her. All of this is what Emoni brings to the kitchen. Her heritage is in her flavors.
Now a senior in high school, the opportunity to take a culinary arts class taught by a professional chef throws a wrench in the expectations Emoni had for herself. Here is a chance to explore something she truly loves and is even called to, but its risky to dream. She had resigned herself to making safe choices to make sure that Babygirl is provided for. As a young, Black girl whose heart was crushed by her child’s father’s inability to commit and her own father’s absence, she likes to be sure before she steps out on a limb. Things are even more complicated by the arrival of a new boy, Malachi, who is unabashed in his wholesome pursuit of her friendship and more. He also is asking for her trust, and she’s not sure how to handle that.
The mentorship that she receives from a Chef Ayden in the new culinary arts program at her school pushes her out of her comfort zone and teaches her to respect the art of cooking beyond something for which she just has a natural skill and sends her all the way to Spain to explore cooking in a culture that she never before dreamed was in her reach.
All of these themes and questions crescendo as Emoni leans into her calling and the unknown. In learning to trust herself, she begins to learn to trust others again and opens herself up to the possibility that she can have a full, joyful life pursuing something she is passionate about while caring for her daughter.
You should read With the Fire on High if you have ever felt like the life of your dreams is just beyond your reach due to cirumstances, responsibilities, and other limitations. Elizabeth Acevedo offers a brilliant recipe for turning your lemons into lemonade.
Have you read this book? Let’s chat in the comments below!