Elizabeth Acevedo’s first novel, The Poet X, won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and the Pura Belpré Award. Although I did not read that book, this one is said to be quite a departure from the previous one.
With the Fire on High is narrated by Emoni Santiago, a seventeen-year-old teenage mother of a two-year-old daughter she nicknamed “Babygirl.” Emoni lives with her paternal grandmother she calls ‘Buela. Emoni’s mother died in childbirth after which her father Julio returned to Puerto Rico, confessing it was too painful for him to be around memories of Emoni’s mother. He does visit once a year however, to see his mother, daughter, and granddaughter. Emoni lives in Fairhill, the (real-life) neighborhood in north Philadelphia that serves as the center of the Hispanic community of the city.
Emoni was fourteen when she got pregnant by an older boy, Tyrone. She explains about having sex:
“It just seemed like what people were doing, and why not Tyrone? He was fine, older, and mostly nice to me. At least, I convinced myself he was nice. And most important, he wanted me. . . . So much of my decision to have sex had more to do with being chosen than it did with any actual sexual attraction.”
Now she doesn’t have time for boys, or so she believes, until she meets a boy who actually treats her with respect. Her main focus, however, remains juggling motherhood, school, and work to help support the family (‘Buela is disabled). She always puts Babygirl first, and adores every aspect of her. But Emoni hasn’t lost sight of her dream from the time she was little, which was to become a chef. In the kitchen, she feels happier than anywhere else in the world:
“It’s the one place I let go and only need to focus on the basics: taste, smell, texture, fusion, beauty. . . . And something special does happen when I’m cooking. It’s like I can imagine a dish in my head and I just know that if I tweak this or mess with that…. I’ll have made a dish that never existed before. . . .”
Emoni attends Schomburg Charter School, which is offering an elective this term, “Culinary Arts: Spain Immersion.” The class even includes a weeklong trip to Spain at the end of the semester.
Emoni barrels in, expecting to inject her own unique magic into the assignments, but Chef Ayden tells the students, “Cooking is about respect. Respect for the food, respect for your space, respect for your colleagues, and respect for your diners.” He admits she has a knack, but also insists that she needs to know how to follow directions before she can innovate if she wants to work her way up to being a chef. Emoni’s adjustment to Chef Ayden’s restrictions serve metaphorically to show not only how Emoni grows up and adapts to the world around her, but manages to retain and enhance her own unique strengths.
Discussion: There is a lot to like about this book. Acevedo clearly has insights into how teens think, speak, and behave (she was a high school teacher for a time). The prose in this book features lots of teenage jargon as well as argot from Philadelphia (such as use of the word jawns).
In addition, as Acevedo stated in an interview, there were a couple of topics she wanted to show positively, such as gay relationships (Emoni’s BFF Angelica is gay) and teen motherhood. So many books paint young, poverty-stricken single moms in a negative light. Acevedo was eager to show another side of the picture, explaining:
“I grew up in a neighborhood with a lot of young mothers. My mom was a childcare provider for over twenty years and the majority of children she worked with had teen/young moms. I watched how she interacted with those parents with respect and dignity and I saw how those parents went to school, worked, picked up their kids, dropped them off early, called during the day to check in, etc. As a teacher I worked with teen mothers, specifically, and saw the same: young people making it work. It seemed to me that there were few stories that handled the subject matter of a teen parent who lives a full life and also loves and takes good care of their child.”
Acevedo also portrays Emoni’s relationship with her grandmother in a way that shows families don’t need to be defined in a “traditional” way to provide everything a child needs. As Emoni says:
“It is ‘Buela who is the starch in my spine, the only hand here to unfurl the wrinkles from my brows, the arms that hold me when I feel like I’m collapsing. I can’t imagine a life without her.”
Some of Emoni’s recipes are included in the book. The instructions are unique to Emoni, with a teenage twist, as in “Keep on the stove for the duration of three listens to a Cardi B song,” or “Bake the bread for the entirety of Bad Bunny’s last album.”
Evaluation: This is a good story with a lot of great messages.
Published by HarperTeen, an imprint of Harper Collins, 2019
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