Review: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

With a strong heart and an even stronger palate, Emoni is moving through life with a drive and a heart that is seeing her through some tough times. After getting pregnant at fourteen, she had to make some choices.

Whether it’s in the kitchen with a sizzle and a pop, at school or at home with her Babygirl, Emoni’s figuring out this thing called life in a brilliant new young adult magical realism book from Elizabeth Acevedo.

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Published: 7 May 2019

Publisher: HarperTeen

Category: Magical Realism/Young Adult/Contemporary

From the New York Times bestselling author of the National Book Award longlist title The Poet X comes a dazzling novel in prose about a girl with talent, pride, and a drive to feed the soul that keeps her fire burning bright.

Ever since she got pregnant freshman year, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about making the tough decisions—doing what has to be done for her daughter and her abuela. The one place she can let all that go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness.

Even though she dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, Emoni knows that it’s not worth her time to pursue the impossible. Yet despite the rules she thinks she has to play by, once Emoni starts cooking, her only choice is to let her talent break free.

Rating: 5 Stars

Rep: Afro-Latina MC (Puerto-Rican/Black), Lesbian side character

It was next to impossible to put down With the Heat on High. The style in which the book was written made it easy to consume, to absorb the events of Emoni’s life as she went through living her life as a mother, as a granddaughter, as a student, as a prospective chef. The short chapters were all encompassing and never felt like they were missing anything.

Emoni talks about a lot of things in her narrative, such as the changes in her life when she became pregnant. Not just the physical changes, but the other ones: how people saw her, treated her as a pregnant teen; what school & the workload was like, etc. All those outside forces that had nothing to do with physical influences.

A good thing about this book is how it handles sex and relationships. There’s one specific sex scene between Emoni and Tyrone (Babygirl’s father) that’s an example of how things don’t have to be perfect. Emoni’s first time is awkward. There’s laughing at the wrong time, fumbling. It shows how it’s okay to feel things you didn’t expect, that the books or movies don’t necessarily tell you the truth about being intimate.

Emoni’s relationship with Malachi is another aspect of how WTFOH handled intimacy. Their relationship has a basis of respect, of knowing boundaries that are talked about and understood. There’s a back and forth between the two of them that I enjoyed, from when they met on the first day of school through to graduation. There’s a level of intimacy that develops which culminates on a school trip that highlights how much Malachi respects Emoni’s reservations.

Acevedo also takes the time to touch on something with her Afro-Latina MC.

And why, Malachi, did you not think I was ‘Black-black’?”

“Well, your last name is Santiago, you’re light-skinned, and your hair’s wild curly. I assumed you were Spanish,” he says, pulling on a strand. I swat at his hand.

“Boy, don’t touch me,” I say. “My father is Puerto Rican and he’s darker than my mom was, and her whole family is straight-from-the-Carolinas Black. And her hair was just as curly as mine. Not all Black women, or Latinas, look the same.”

There’s a recurring theme that comes up where Emoni talks about her identity as a Black woman. Malachi is the person we see question her most directly about it when he meets her, but Emoni has more than a couple of moments where she reflects about how people are always expecting her to teach them about her identity, where she comes from, where her people are from or why her skin is the color it is, her hair as curly.

This stuff is complicated. But it’s like I’m some long-division problem folks keep wanting to parcel into pieces, and they don’t hear me when I say: I don’t reduce, homies. The whole of me is Black. The whole of me is whole.

Beyond that, Emoni also talks about her neighborhood in Philly, how there’s news reports about how “dangerous” it is, but that those kinds of things come from the people that don’t live there, don’t know the Papis and the citizens that walks the streets day in and out.

On the one hand, people are scared to come over here because they say this part of town is dangerous, “undeveloped,” and a part of me thinks, good, keep out, then. But everyone knows that the good things like farmers’ markets, and updated grocery stores, and consistent trash pickup only happen when outsiders move in.

These reflections were, I thought, an interesting inspection about the fine line between community improvement and gentrification. How there’s a world view that outsiders have that is toxic but that if they visit, they could bring with them things that will keep the good parts alive. It’s a wicked balancing act, making things work without destroying the culture, because there’s people that think they know better when really it’s that they think their way is better and then they end up obliterating something precious.

I want to be able to take care of my own and the only thing I would want to study is culinary arts, but why try to learn that in a school when I could learn it in a real restaurant where I’m making money instead of spending it?”

Oh my god, the cooking in this book is such a shining thing. I’m usually a recipe follower, but Emoni is an instinctive cook and it works for her. There’s almost a mystic touch to Emoni’s cooking, as evidenced by several instances where she puts her feelings into creating a dish from whatever she finds in the pantry and whoever eats it has a memory conjured up that they thought they’d long forgotten.

This magical realism was such a fascinating element because her abuela talks about Emoni’s hands and how they work with food. Emoni also encounters a chef during her apprenticeship on a school trip who talks about how, whether she calls it magic or not, she’s got a something with food, with her knowing how to use this or that with spices that brings pleasure to whoever eats her meals.

Referencing the quote above: while Emoni is in her Advisory (homeroom) class, there’s a teacher who’s encouraging her to go to college, one with a culinary program. It creates some conflict for Emoni because she’s not sure if she should go to college or if she can, not least because of her grades, but also because of Babygirl. There’s the question of money, childcare, and a dozen other things. I liked this quote because I thought she had a point. Not everyone (professional chef wise) goes to culinary school. There are some that actually advise against it and suggest that real life experience in a kitchen is more helpful and a lot less expensive. Emoni makes her own decision and the journey to it makes for good reading.

There are SO MANY elements to this books. There are the “recipes” that are included (inspired by Emoni’s instinctual method of cooking). There are the relationships, familial and friends. There are questions that range from what to do when you find yourself in a position like Emoni’s, where you have to decide how best to provide for someone other than yourself. It’s a whole big bag of complicated, With the Fire on High, and it is such a good bag of enjoyable complicated that I can’t wait until it’s time for me to read this story again. Elizabeth Acevedo did an amazing job with this book and I can’t recommend it enough.

Favorite Quotes

 

sometimes focusing on what you can control is the only way to lessen the pang in your chest when you think about the things you can’t.

 

I love Ms. Fuentes, but sometimes she says real stupid shit. “I think there are lots of ways to ‘make something’ of yourself and still support your family. College isn’t the only way.”

 

’Buela has a way of letting you know she cares for you—and that she’ll also beat that ass if you act up.

 

I whisper all the everything I know she can be and the ways I’ll fight for her to be them. I want her to know her entire life her mommy may not have been much but that her moms did everything so that she could be an accumulation of the best dreams.

 

“My mother always told me one of the hardest things to be in a hungry world is a parent. But sometimes I think it’s being an older brother. To know exactly what your sibling needs and not have the age or strength to know any way to get it for them.”

 

 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Quotes included are from an advanced reader copy and may not reflect the finalized copy.

All media (pictures, quotes, etc.) belong to the respective owners and are used here solely for the purpose of review and commentary.

 

4 thoughts on “Review: With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo

  1. I am SO EXCITED to read this one!!! Ever since a friend of mine told me about it it’s been high on my list. Though I don’t usually enjoy books where a young girl gets pregnant – I’ve loved everything I’ve heard about this.

    Liked by 1 person

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