I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Published by HarperTeen on May 7, 2019
Genres: Contemporary, Young Adult
Pages: 400 •Format: ARC •Source: ALA
Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions—doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.
Even though she dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth 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.
Isn’t it just the best feeling when a book that you’ve been HIGHLY anticipating lives up to your expectations? That was my experience when reading With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo. I initially swooned over the gorgeous cover and the fact that it featured a Latinx protagonist, but I wasn’t sure what to expect from the writing since the author was new to me and I’d heard her previous book was more poetry-focused. However, I almost immediately fell in love with this story of a resilient teen who balances the challenges thrown her way with grace and heart.
With the Fire On High follows Emoni, a senior in high school with a love of cooking but an even stronger love for her daughter, who she had early on in high school. I think this is the first YA book I’ve read that actually deals with the topic of a teen mother, rather than a teen pregnancy. I really appreciated following Emoni’s story and seeing how yes, it’s difficult being a single mother so young and it does require sacrifices (such as Emoni having to balance work, parenting, school and deciding whether or not she can pursue her other passions on top of it) but it’s also rewarding and her love for her daughter is unparalleled. Acevedo also does an amazing job weaving in Emoni’s other family members as characters’s patterns and actions realistically influence Emoni’s situation today, from her father who fled the US in grief after her birth to her Abuela who, though she loves her great granddaughter, mourns her freedom as she’s bound to caring to a third generation of children after raising her own son and her granddaughter.
While a huge part of the story is Emoni’s role as a teen mother and her family relationships, the text also focuses on her desire and dreams to work in a kitchen. Emoni feels at peace with food and cooking is the way she shows love, expresses grief, and finds comfort in the world. From cooking in her Abuela’s kitchen to her part time job at a fast food restaurant, Emoni is trying to soak up everything she can about the food industry though she has no formal training or coaching. She is given the opportunity of a lifetime to take a cooking class as an elective through her school which includes a trip to Spain to work under real chefs and struggles with balancing her guilt and her passions: Can she leave her daughter for that long? Can she really afford to be taking a trip abroad? Is cooking the wisest choice when it comes to an elective when preparing for college? Emoni’s journey includes a lot of difficult choices and real life circumstances that truly show the coming of age process for her. There’s no manufactured drama in this story and it was refreshing to read a YA book that shows being 17 or 18 can mean very different things to different people depending on their situations.
My favorite part of this book was the writing style. Rather than traditional chapters, the novel is filled with mini vignettes with evocative titles that show snippets into Emoni’s life, both past and present. It made the reading experience go by so fast, it was like I blinked and I was 200 pages in because I was so immersed in the writing and felt like I was truly in Emoni’s mind. I love that Acevedo didn’t stick to the typical “novel” format and seems to play with writing styles- I can’t wait to see what she does next!
There’s also a wonderful amount of representation in this story without ever feeling forced. Emoni is both black and Latinx and is open about her frustrations with those who try to label her as one or the other and dismiss parts of her identity. Many of the characters come from lower income areas and struggle with making ends meet, and classism is especially explored through Emoni’s co-parenting relationship with her baby’s father, who’s parents are well off. Emoni’s best friend has an adorable relationship with another female (and Emoni is the sweetest friend ever for making them their anniversary dinner, FYI). There’s also several examples of single parents and how they have all dealt differently with raising their families (or opting not to). Acevedo makes all of these dynamic and diverse characters and circumstances feel authentic and part of a vibrant community and cast of characters, never making the story feel like an “issue” book.
As much as I loved With the Fire On High, I have two tiny qualms (that could have changed in the finished, published copy). The first is the romance. I think this story could have 100% worked without the romance. There are already so many other things going on in Emoni’s life that I found more interesting and wish more time could have been spent developing rather than a relationship with a guy who honestly felt forgettable. The other thing is that I found some variation of the phrase “I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding” SEVERAL TIMES throughout the book- I honestly thought it was a joke the first time I came across it because it’s such a well known cliché in the YA world.
Overall: With the Fire On High is solidly one of my favorite reads of 2019. It has a wonderfully authentic and determine protagonist, delicious food descriptions, a captivating slice-of-life story and well rounded characters. The unique writing style was also a welcome surprise. I wish I could have ten more books about Emoni’s life journey but I’ll just have to settle for whatever Acevedo writes next. I cannot recommend this one enough!