I have a confession: In the first few years after I finished college, I thought I was too old for YA books. I thought I could only read about characters who were my age or older, and that reading YA books would make me look immature. This nonsense went on for several years before I finally realized that, although I’m now 30, I actually still want to read YA novels and can still truly enjoy them.
One of the first YA books that caught my eye was With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo; I got it from Book of the Month earlier this year and have been waiting for the right time to read it. As summer winds down, it felt like exactly the read I needed.
Emoni Santiago is a high school senior with big dreams… but a lot holding her back. Although she’s only 17, she has a two-year-old daughter, Emma. Emoni lives in Philadelphia with the grandmother who raised her, and they’re always tight on money, so Emoni has to work part-time while still a full-time student. But in spite of her financial situations and her responsibility to her little girl, Emoni has the talent to become a world-class chef. That is, if she can hone her skills.
She gets an extraordinary opportunity when her school offers a culinary arts class. Part of the class is a trip to Sevilla, Spain during spring break. But as Emoni spends more time in class, she butts heads with her teacher, and worries she won’t be able to afford the excursion to Spain.
On top of all this, Emoni is unsure of her future. Should she apply to college? Does she even have the grades to get in? Or should she go straight to work, and get valuable, hands-on experience in a restaurant while supporting herself? Throw in issues with her ex (Emma’s dad), a new love interest, her grandmother’s secrets, and long-simmering issues with her dad (who still lives in Puerto Rico), and Emoni is juggling a lot.
With the Fire on High takes us into the life of a hard-working single mom as she finishes her last year of high school and builds her future.
There are a few reasons I was drawn to With the Fire on High and ultimately picked it up:
1: It highlights a new type of character not often portrayed in books… especially in YA.
With the Fire on High shines a light on fresh issues that are very much present in the real world, but that I haven’t seen enough of in literature. Specifically, Emoni is a teen mom, and a single mom at that. I love that Elizabeth Acevedo never portrays her as less than just because she had a kid so young. This novel helps break down stigmas and shows Emoni as a full, nuanced person. She’s no less intelligent or responsible simply because she had a kid when she was 15; she’s not less talented or ambitious. Quite the contrary.
Moreover, Emoni is a loving, considerate mother who never once resents regrets having her child. She’s happy with her past choices and her sweet daughter, and while having a kid already can pose its own challenges and limitations, Emoni works hard to navigate this path. It’s empowering and evokes better understanding of and respect for young mothers.
2: It’s partially set in Spain.
I studied abroad in Spain… twice. First I spent spring quarter there in my junior year as an undergrad. I lived in León with a wonderful host family, and those three months were some of the most valuable in my life. It was such an incredible experience that, only a year later, I entered a one-year master’s program, this time in Valencia. That year in Spain was life-changing, and I’m always eager to read a good book set in Spain.
In With the Fire on High, Emoni’s high school class has the opportunity to travel to Sevilla for a one-week culinary excursion. They’ll live with host families, work in different restaurants, and get to know Spanish culture a bit. The chapters in Sevilla were among my favorite in the book; they transported me to my own study abroad experiences, and it was a treat to see these characters dropped into a new culture.
3: Emoni is a chef with natural talent.
Emoni seems to just know what flavors will work together, as if by magic. The way she works in the kitchen reminds me of my husband (whom I met in Spain, by the way). He’s Latino – Peruvian, to be exact – and he, like Emoni, trusts instinct, not recipes, when he’s in the kitchen. It’s a far cry from my severely limited skills and full reliance on step-by-step instructions. Some chapters early in Emoni’s culinary classes sounded just like my husband, so I know it’s legit.
I went into With the Fire on High aware of those three themes, and I was fully happy with how Elizabeth Acevedo portrayed each. However, the book also offered so much more, beyond my limited expectations! Here are some more highlights I discovered while reading:
1: Great intersection of Latina and black identity, calling out racism and colonialism, and showing financial struggles.
Emoni is a black woman, and her father’s side of the family is Puerto Rican. There’s a section of the book where she discusses her dual identities, and calls out misconceptions that Latinx people can’t also be black. She’s very well aware of racism that she and those in her community face on a daily basis. She talks about her name, her baby’s dad’s name, and why she chose to name her daughter something more neutral. Towards the end, she points out the double standards white people have against young mothers, depending on their race. I appreciate that Elizabeth Acevedo doesn’t shy away from these larger social issues. They need to be spoken about everywhere so more people can start to see prejudice and racism and the harm they have.
Emoni’s dad is also extremely proud of his Puerto Rican identity… and vocally against colonialism and Spain’s conquest of so much of the Americas. It’s an important reminder of all the atrocities of our past, and the need to place higher value on the people who were already here before the Americas were “discovered.”
Finally, I appreciate that Emoni and her grandmother are poor, making it necessary for Emoni to work. I grew up poor, and I also had to work through school. I understand what it’s like to not know if you can afford something, something so many others may take for granted. I really felt for Emoni and the financial barriers she had to work so hard to overcome. It’s real, and it needs to be talked about more.
2: Each of the characters is strong and fully formed.
I love that no one in this book ever feels like a cliché. Each character feels real, and they perceive the world in ways that are valid and realistic. Emoni is particularly strong and nuanced. She has a stubborn streak, and she can be a bit temperamental; she’s sometimes immature and can’t see the bigger picture – she is still a teenager, after all! But she’s also responsible and works hard. She’s a devoted mother, granddaughter, and friend. She overcomes reservations about what she can and should do, ultimately finding a path that will allow her to grow at a pace that works for her.
The supporting characters are excellent, too. Her ex-boyfriend, Tyrone, is certainly imperfect, but he’s not vilified, and he has plenty of redeeming qualities. Emoni’s ‘Buela is wise and caring, yet she has her own secrets. Malachi is about as nice as a person can be, and one of the most deserving love interests I’ve seen in a novel. Everyone, from her friend Angelica to her teacher Chef Ayden, is great.
With the Fire on High is a thought-provoking book about numerous important themes. But it’s also an engrossing and easy read that keeps the pages turning and your interest fully engaged. It’s one of the more mature YA books I’ve read, and that’s something I think the genre benefits from. I adored this whole novel, and I’ll be recommending it to everyone – including my cooking aficionado husband!
Elizabeth Acevedo is an excellent writer, and I look forward to reading her other books. I have Clap When You Land on my shelf already, so look out for a review of that soon!
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