BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo [in Shelf Awareness]

It’s the first day of school again, and Emoni Santiago tells her young daughter Emma, more commonly called Babygirl, “make sure you’re nice to the other kids and … you learn a lot, okay?” Then ’Buela, Emoni’s grandmother, reminds Emoni, “you have a good first day of school. Be nice to the other kids. Learn a lot.” Emoni is a high school senior who got pregnant with Emma her freshman year. ’Buela has raised them both – after her mother died, Emoni’s father returned to Puerto Rico, leaving her in Philadelphia with his mother; Babygirl’s father, too, tends toward missing, reappearing for every-other-weekend visits with his daughter. Despite challenging circumstances, Emoni and Babygirl are thriving in their loving three-generation household: Emoni has managed to stay in school and has a homeroom teacher who really cares; she’s got a part-time job to help supplement ’Buela’s disability checks; and her BFF Angelica is unconditionally supportive. She’s also got “magical hands when it comes to cooking.” Her “innate need to tell a story through food” helps her create “straight bottled goodness that warms you up and makes you feel better about your life.”

This school year, Schomburg Charter is offering a new elective: “Culinary Arts: Spain Immersion” – which includes a weeklong trip to Spain during spring break. Emoni can dream, but she knows the class would be an impractical choice. However, BFF Angelica’s insistence that “if you can’t try something new now, when can you?” convinces her to enroll. No one doubts Emoni can cook, but what Chef Ayden has to teach her is more than just making delicious meals: “‘Cooking is about respect … for the food … your space. .. your colleagues … your diners. The chef who ignores one of those is not a chef at all.’” His demands feel so initially stifling that Emoni temporarily quits. She realizes soon enough though, that going back is something she needs to do for herself. Besides, new boy Malachi, who she insists is not even a friend, is in the same class and proving tough to resist. Amidst school, work, and parenting, Emoni will need to figure out how to balance what she must do, with what she wants to do.

Elizabeth Acevedo, who won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature with her debut novel-in-verse, The Poet X, turns to prose for her sophomore effort. Her writing remains undeniably insightful and breathtakingly lyrical, though at 400 pages, With the Fire on High lacks the spare sharpness of X. While her characters occasionally seem predictable – teenage mother, deadbeat father, sacrificing grandmother, mean boss, ideal love interest – the positives here win. Acevedo’s treatment of teenage pregnancy is fresh and honest, ’Buela gets a secret life of her own, Emoni’s solutions are especially creative, deadbeat dads can surprise you, teachers and mentors always matter. Emoni’s delicious recipes are tempting treats, as well. With such distinctive ingredients combined with Acevedo’s already established sizable audience, this Fire on High should undoubtedly prove to be a sizzling success.

Shelf Talker: National Book Award winner Acevedo’s sophomore title features a tenacious teen mother determined to follow her culinary dreams.

Review: “YA Review,” Shelf Awareness Pro, March 27, 2019

Readers: Young Adult

Published: 2019


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