I finally got around to writing my review for With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo on Goodreads earlier this week so that I could include it in the second half of my Top 20 of 2020 (part 1 here, part 2 goes live on With a Book in Our Hands tomorrow and eventually I’ll link directly to the post…) I borrowed the audiobook through Libby back in October and listened to it then, but I have since ordered the hardback because this is a book I’m going to want to read again.
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About the Book
With the Fire on High
by Elizabeth Acevedo
Published 7 May 2019
by Quill Tree Books
(a Harper Teen imprint)
Genre: YA Contemporary Fiction
Page Count: 400
Add it to your Goodreads TBR!
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.
My Rating: 5 Stars!
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Teen Mom Emoni has been blessed with an amazing abuela and an equally amazing homeroom teacher who fought to keep her in her charter high school and not ship her off to the decelerated teen mom school when she became a mom in her freshman year. Now she’s in her senior year, her three-year-old is growing up fast, and she’s facing the reality of graduation and the choice she has to make between the career plan that is guaranteed to provide for her daughter and the career plan that will give her a fulfilling life. Emoni loves to cook and a world-class chef happens to be reviving the cooking program at her school, complete with a Spanish infusion class that includes a trip to Spain… that she has no hope of affording. This is the story of how Emoni learns to take risks, embrace what she loves, and start letting new people in.
I listened to the audiobook (library loan) and then promptly bought the hardcover so I could re-read it and keep this book around forever. Author Elizabeth Acevedo narrated this herself and did an amazing job! Every character had a distinct way of speaking, so it was easy to follow, and her passion came through so strongly. Listening to the audiobook was a beautifully intimate experience.
I am neither a black Latina nor a born master chef, but this book made me feel like I was living Emoni’s experience along with her, and I found so many ways in which I could relate to her. Conversations between Emoni and her best friend felt like I was talking to my own best friend. Emoni’s relationship with her abuela reminded me of my mother and maternal grandparents, the family who raised me. Emoni’s relationship with her daughter and the emotional challenges of motherhood spoke straight to this mother’s heart and made me laugh and cry in equal measures.
I loved the dynamic between Emoni and new student Malachi, and how he wasn’t scared off by her “I can’t afford to be anything other than Emma’s Mom” standoffish attitude. I immediately thought it was going to be revealed that he was the son of the chef class teacher, and I won’t spoil whether or not he is, but I will say that as Emoni starts getting closer to him we learn that he’s so much more than he appears to be and there’s a tragic backstory that really seems to compliment Emoni’s experience in a silver lining sort of way. He wants to become a doctor to help the people he grew up around. She wants to cook so that her food can make people happy and remind them of better times and beloved places from the past like her cooking always does for her abuela. Malachi is also such a beautifully crafted foil to Emoni’s baby daddy. Where Tyrone is full of cockiness covering up insecurity and struggles to consider what’s best for others, Malachi knows exactly who he is, sees Emoni for who she is, and is willing to wait for her to see him as more than just the annoying new kid in cooking class.
This book tackles so many social issues. Teen pregnancy and parenthood, single parenthood, shared custody of a child, non-typical family structures, poverty, the casual and not-so-casual racism we see daily in North America contrasted with the more understated lingering colonialism present in Europe. There are black, Latinx, and mixed-race characters. There are LGBTQIA characters. There are characters with tragic backstories, some of whom have already mastered those things and some of whom unravel as the book progresses.
Emoni learns to let the right sort of love in, to set boundaries, and to take risks for the sake of happiness.
I’m absolutely serious when I say my only critique of this book is that Emoni let out a lot of breaths she didn’t know she was holding, but would this be a YA book if she didn’t?
About the Author
ELIZABETH ACEVEDO is the New York Times-bestselling author of The Poet X, which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Michael L. Printz Award, the Pura Belpré Award, the Carnegie medal, the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, and the Walter Award. She is also the author of With the Fire on High—which was named a best book of the year by the New York Public Library, NPR, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal—and Clap When You Land, which was a Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor book and a Kirkus finalist.
She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo has been a fellow of Cave Canem, Cantomundo, and a participant in the Callaloo Writer’s Workshops. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love.
Pebbles would like everyone to know that she looooooves this book! (That or I wasn’t paying enough attention to her.)
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