With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
Genre: Young Adult
Maturity Level: 5-
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With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.
With the Fire on High is one of my favorite YA novels I’ve ever read. It was touching and thoughtful, and it was about real life. Acevedo doesn’t sugar coat the realities of being a young black woman or being a teen mom, but the tone of the book is still hopeful.
This isn’t one of those books where the writing is almost poetic. And thank goodness, because while I’m sure Acevedo is more than capable, it wouldn’t have made sense for the character of Emoni. Instead the writing is simple and straightforward, just like Emoni is. I love the way she incorporated slang throughout the novel, and not just in the dialogue. Even the narration had the cadence and feel of an inner-city teen. It was perfect.
Emoni. I’ve never read a character like her. She’s strong, but not in the usual way. She isn’t independent, and she doesn’t seem to be particularly eager to be. She’s not outspoken or brash, but mostly keeps to herself. She’s proud, but knows how to ask for help. Instead her strength emanates from the desire to give her daughter the best life possible. She’s willing to work her butt off to do so. But Emoni isn’t self-sacrificial. She works for herself and to make her own life better too. I really admired that.
I’ve never read a book about a teen parent before. It was a powerful experience, smashing stereotypes and expectations. Acevedo is obviously not a parent, she didn’t quite manage to capture the way it takes over every moment of every day. But she absolutely nailed the way being a parent feels, and how complicated it can be. There were a couple of times I had to put the book down, because Emoni felt things or made me feel things that were so … overwhelming that I had to step away for a bit. Good feelings, scary feelings.
Like I said before, this book is about real life. Therefore there’s not some overreaching story line. It’s definitely more character-driven than plot driven. I mean, real life rarely has a rising action, climax, falling action. But there is a feeling of momentum that carries through the book, culminating emotionally and thematically at the end. And I guess plot-wise, too.
I have to add that if you’re into cooking, you will love the way this book talks about food. That’s not something I personally care about, but it was beautifully done nonetheless.
It’s easy to see why Acevedo won the national book award. This book is brilliant. It’s everything a YA book should be, and more. Honestly, I take that back. This is everything a book should be, and more. Like The Hate U Give, this is the kind of book that transcends the YA label. It’s just as good if not better than the “literary fiction” being written in 2019, but with the added bonus that it doesn’t make me feel despairing of the state of the world. I recommend it to everyone, especially if you think it’s not for you.