by Elizabeth Acevedo
read the full synopsis.
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.
NARRATIVES THAT HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME (AKA ME THINKING OF MY MOM THE WHOLE TIME)
Let me kick off this review with a very personal note: my mother had me while she was still in her teen years. Specifically, she was an eighteen-year-old college student at the time. Having said that, it comes as no surprise that With the Fire on High impacted me in ways most books haven’t. Of course, it should be noted that Emoni’s experiences as a teenage mom are not completely reflective of what my mother went through. One of the many crucial differences between them is that my parents decided to get married and so, I had not been raised in a single-parent household. But I digress.
Despite their significant differences, I still managed to notice startling parallels between my mother and Emoni – her doing whatever she could to give her daughter access to opportunities she herself never had, her struggles in balancing her role and responsibilities as a student, employee, and mother, just to name a few. Considering how busy I am with college and whatever else, I only get to spend time with my family once or twice a month (aka the rare instances when I get free weekends). Reading With the Fire on High not only made me miss my family even more, but also allowed me to feel somewhat closer to my mother.
Moreover, the book offers an unflinchingly honest portrayal of being a teenage parent, as well as the brutal gender double standards that collectively place a heavier burden on young women. Although I’m a teenage mom’s kid rather than an actual teenage mom, I genuinely believe that Emoni’s narrative is wonderfully authentic, is written with sensitivity and empathy, and speaks volumes regarding real fears, anxieties, and the sense of fulfillment a teenage parent experiences.
I loved a lot of things about the narratives in this story, but I particularly adored how With the Fire on High manages to effectively portray how being responsible for a child – or having responsibility for someone else, in general – leads to major changes in life and in terms of priorities. How you can unconditionally love a person and find fulfillment in caring for them, but at the same time feel frustrated over not being the center of your own life, having to compromise for someone else’s wellbeing, and putting your dreams on hold.
I’ve always been small, physically petite, which made people think I had a small personality, too. And then, all of a sudden, I was a walking PSA: a bloated teen warning, taking up too much space and calling too much attention.
PHENOMENALLY WRITTEN CHARACTERS, HEARTWARMING RELATIONSHIPS, & MUCH-NEEDED REPRESENTATION
One of the many, many highlights of With the Fire on High is its diverse cast of characters and the interactions among them. Aside from having vibrant personalities and distinct charms, all the characters have their own independent narratives interwoven into the overall plot of the story – for instance, ‘Buela finding her identity outside her maternal roles, Julio (Emoni’s dad) coming to terms with his grief, and even Tyrone (Emma’s birth father) learning to hold himself accountable as a parent. Because of these narratives, all characters, including those with supporting or minor roles, are given an allowance for growth and development.
🌻 Emoni – Afro-Latina (Black and Puerto Rican) teenage mom with an inherent instinct for inventive recipes and magic that can cook up a savory storm. Having made difficult choices after getting pregnant in freshman year, Emoni’s character is strong-willed, selfless, and admirably mature (although she is also prone to moments of helplessness, insecurity, and pent-up frustration). Definitely a main character I immediately empathized with and rooted for.
🌻 Gloria (‘Buela) – Emoni’s parental figure in the absence of her birth father, as well as a sort-of co-parent for Emoni’s daughter, Emma. With the right balance of strength and softness, she is the backbone of the family. Her relationship with Emoni had me holding back tears if I’m being honest.
🌻 Angelica – Emoni’s unapologetically queer (lesbian) best friend with unparalleled artistic talent and a heart of gold. A loyal and soft goofball who can be tough as nails when the need arises. One half of the most adorable, most precious sapphic relationship ever (I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that she and her girlfriend get their own book someday!).
🌻 Malachi – Tall, dark and handsome new kid on the block with a smile that can melt glaciers in a second. I thought his immediate interest in Emoni was earnest and endearing. As the story progressed, I adored the back-and-forth banter the two of them shared. I also really liked how their relationship blossomed from unlikely friends to the cutest couple.
Personally, it was the lovely character relationships that really drew me in an already compelling story. How these characters interact with each other really twisted my heart – sometimes in the best of ways, and sometimes in a deliciously painful way. I cannot wait for more readers to meet this diverse bunch!
UNCONVENTIONAL COMING-OF-AGE STORY SPRINKLED WITH COMPLEXITIES, NUANCES, & CINAMMON DUST
At its core, With the Fire on High is a coming-of-age journey for a teenage girl who’s had to mature more quickly than her peers and who’s had to take on more responsibility than most people her age. I think the book initiates a thoughtful discussion on what “coming of age” looks like for the youth whose circumstances have pushed them into acting like adults at an early age, and in my opinion, this is a discussion that is sorely needed in Young Adult literature.
In some ways, Emoni’s circumstances aren’t very different from any other teenager: it’s senior year and she is terrified and unsure of her plans after graduation. But of course, as a mother to a growing daughter and as the head of their household, it’s a bit more than that, too. It’s choosing between her lifelong ambition or more immediate means of providing for her family. It’s deciding whether she’s ready to take on motherhood without ‘Buela’s constant assistance. And it’s negotiating between who she wants to be and who her daughter needs her to be.
Being a teenage parent is not the only complication in her life, though. Emoni is biracial, and in more than one occasion, she feels frustration over “not being enough” of something or “being too much” of something when, in fact, she is both and she is whole. Her relationship with her father leaves a lot to be desired. She is also tasked with financially supporting her family because ‘Buela’s disability checks can only go so far. And her culinary arts elective is throwing a few curveballs at her way, too.
However, it is worth recognizing that With the Fire on High unapologetically delves into issues outside of Emoni’s personal life. As a main character, Emoni is introspective and thoughtful. Through her perspective, Acevedo raises powerful points regarding gentrification, education as a luxury and as a privilege, racism and microaggressions, colonialism, and sex positivity among the youth.
A QUICK PAGE-TURNER THAT WILL LEAVE READERS HUNGRY & HEARTS FULL
To my surprise, With the Fire on High is a quick read. Its chapters are quite short in terms of length, and the sentences flowed so seamlessly together that I devoured words at the same rate people gobbled up Emoni’s heavenly dishes. However, make no mistake: the chapters may be short and sweet, but the story itself is nothing short of compelling and evocative.
Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel was told in verses, and much like in The Poet X, her talent in stringing words together is evident in With the Fire on High. From the well-crafted metaphors to mouthwatering food descriptions to the quieter moments of Emoni’s self-reflection, I can only describe her writing style as ‘poetry in motion’ – lyrical, poignant, and moving.
Strongly written characters, an intersection of identities, cultures, and histories, a taboo subject matter discussed with sensitivity, snippets of creative recipes, phenomenal storytelling, and an extremely satisfying ending — With the Fire on High has all the necessary ingredients (with just the right pinch of magical cinnamon dust) for a quick page-turner that readers will immediately eat up and fall in love with. This one’s absolutely riveting. Please send my compliments to the chef.
Click to read the content and trigger warnings.
Mentions of premarital sex; early teenage pregnancy; brief mention of abortion; slut-shaming and racism (both challenged)
I received a physical review copy of With the Fire on High as part of my participation in an amazing blog tour organized by Karina @ Afire Pages and in cooperation with the publisher (of course, this does not affect my review and any quoted passages from the ARC are subject to changes in the finished copy). Many thanks to Karina and HarperCollins International for the opportunity! Follow along the blog tour by checking out the schedule and join in on the fun!
By the way! There are ongoing international giveaways for a signed copy of With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo and an exclusive t-shirt inspired by the book! Try your luck and enter them before the giveaways end.
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I’d love to hear from you!
🌻 Do you think there should be more YA books that tackle teenage pregnancy?
🌻 Have you read Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut novel, The Poet X? If yes, what did you think? How much did you enjoy it?
🌻 Is With the Fire on High already on your radar? How excited are you to pick this book up?